Last year when I went on West Trek with Career Planning, almost every executive, most of who were white, described Silicon Valley as a “meritocracy,” where people are judged by ideas, not by privilege. But my privilege got me into those companies’ office. We were probably the first program to visit Apple Park, and at Google, it was practically a group interview—they even hired one of my friends. Our presence denied their meritocracy.
But that’s not entirely a bad thing. I’m very grateful for the trip, and as I explained to my mom, I expect certain benefits from my Bowdoin degree. This all-expenses paid trip was one of them. But why? If I were to work in Silicon Valley, I would be contributing to a system of vast wealth inequality that pushes people of color out of San Francisco.
By sending me to Silicon Valley, Bowdoin furthers the social divide of our nation, and I would prefer that we sort things out on campus before we solve the world’s problems. We are an elite institution, where the cost of attendance is more than what most people in America make in a year. We could, and should, lower tuition, but more than that, we should pay working class people more money for their labor. Let’s institute a living wage for all employees.
With a living wage comes the moral recognition that our minimum wage does not suffice a satisfactory quality of life. It is the idea that we should pay people enough money to do more than just survive, regardless of the labor they provide. In Cumberland County, the living wage is $16.56 per hour for two working parents with two children but $25.77 for a single parent with one child. Bowdoin’s minimum wage is several dollars short of these figures, which I believe is evidence that our facilities workers do not entirely have a satisfactory quality of life.
When I was a first year, my floor gave our housekeeper a Visa card with about a hundred dollars on it. Do you know how she spent this money? She bought arts and crafts to spend time with her grandchildren. In the letter she wrote to us, she explained that she had wanted to do this for months but did not have the disposable income to do so.
This is anecdotal evidence, for sure, but I think the charity offered by our college indicates a widespread problem. For employees in times of “extreme hardship,” there is the Bowdoin Staff Assistance Fund, which admittedly does provide an incredible safety net for our employees. But it also suggests that some are not paid enough to prevent moments of extreme hardship, that it is a very real possibility to encounter utility shut off notices when you work at Bowdoin. I think we should pay our workers a high enough wage where they no longer fear foreclosure.
But I recognize this is a tough sell. Hourly workers here have some of the best wages and benefits in the whole state of Maine, but it is not enough to compare our wages to Walmart or McDonald’s. Wealth inequality is at an all-time high. I saw this in San Francisco, and I see it now in Brunswick. Last year, 75 percent of facilities workers surveyed by the Orient said they struggled to make ends meet. How can we as a college market the “Common Good” when we don’t even take care of our own, when we’ve got poverty in our backyard?
It does not matter if we are the best at something if the standard is so poor. We should pay people a living wage, and if you wonder where we’ll get the money, I say we cut the Athletics Department, tear down the Roux Center or pay other staff members less. In 2015, Chief Investment Officer Paula Volent made 2.25 million dollars, which is more than 2.2 million more dollars than the person who cleans her office. If the living wage is the idea that you can live off it, I think we should also pay Volent, President Clayton Rose, and every other overpaid administrator a living wage, too.
Until we pay people a just living wage, we deny them their personhood. When the “Bowdoin Hello” does not extend to housekeeping, I’m not sure the College cares enough about its staff. If we are to be a bastion of social mobility, then we must attack the meritocracy of our own institution. We must begin to use our Bowdoin degrees to solve society’s problems, not perpetuate them. I think we should forget about Silicon Valley, recognize the role we play in Brunswick and pay all employees here a living wage. If you agree or disagree, then leave a comment.