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"Is service work today worse than being a household servant?"

David Cay Johnston says yes:

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:

  • The 1910 cook earned tax-free pay, while 2013 cook pays 7.65 percent of his or her income in Social Security taxes as well as income taxes on more than a third of his pay, assuming full-time work every week of the year. For a single person, that’s about $29 of that $55 raise deducted for taxes.
  • Unless he can walk to work, today’s outsourced family cook must cover commuting costs. A monthly transit pass costs $75 in Los Angeles, $95 in Atlanta and $112 in New York City, so bus fare alone runs $17 to $27 a week, eating up a third to almost half of the seeming increase in pay, making the apparent raise pretty much vanish.
  • The 1910 cook got room and board, while the 2013 cook must provide his or her own living space and food.

More than half of fast-food workers are on some form of welfare, labor economists at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Illinois reported in October after analyzing government economic statistics.

Because freedom!

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nihil obstet's picture
Submitted by nihil obstet on

The 1910 cook had a half-day off every two weeks, and no family. She lived in a single room in the house, usually in the attic. Housework was physically demanding, and could go from early morning until fairly late in the evening. This doesn't mean it was particularly grim, since there would be a servants' hall and no one hanging over her shoulder all the time. But essentially the life of the house servant was controlled by the employer.

Today's servant has more unsupervised time and technical freedom in life style, but is controlled by the time and energy of trying to survive on inadequate wages.