Outsourcing the Downton Abbey economy

by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems I'm not the only one to notice that we're headed for a economy of servants and rich people.

A household cook typically earned $10 a week in 1910, century-old books on the etiquette of hiring servants show. That is $235 per week in today’s money, while the federal minimum wage for 40 hours comes to $290 a week. 
At first blush, that looks like a real raise of $55 a week, or nearly a 25 percent increase in pay. But in fact, the 2013 minimum-wage cook is much worse off than the 1910 cook. Here’s why:
Johnston is saying that instead of a live-in cook, wealthy families are going out to eat. I'm not sure how often the 1% eat at McDonald's, I suspect they eat in more salubrious surroundings, but I'm not sure how much their servers get paid.

But those who do work in the homes don't typically live there. There's little information on domestic workers because Congress exempts them from those professions on which the Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers information, but Johnston links to a study that shows average domestic workers are spending 60% of their income on housing.

Those who do live in the home they work in are paid less, are less likely to get at least 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and are more than twice as likely to be threatened, insulted and verbally abused. (table 4 on the same link.)

In my first post on this topic, I recalled the family joke my grandfather learned from his parents, who had both been servants on an English estate: "There are two kinds of people, those who are good to their servants, and those who don't," a cynical take on the way people who employ servants often didn't treat them as people, even if they are "good to their servants."

Based on the research Johnston unearthed, I'd say those who are good to their servants in the current economy are vanishingly rare.


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