For my new book, The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, I interviewed scores of frustrated professionals, toiling away in jobs that paid the bills but that they didn't care for or believe in. A few weeks ago, I came across another. Too late for the book, sadly, but still a story worth telling. Let's call him Tom.
Tom is 10 years out of art school and he's found his passion -- teaching Shakespeare to kids. If he could just do that full-time, he says, he'd be satisfied with his working life. But instead of being a teacher, he's a human resources consultant.
Tom's supporting three kids and his wife who stays home to raise them. (I didn't pry dollar-by-dollar into the family's financial situation, but the exorbitant cost of childcare makes it a wash for many women with several small children to work.) Tom doesn't have a huge house or huge expectations, but he does expect to own a home and send his kids to college. And the new math of raising a family scares him. For a baby born today, the estimated total tuition for a B.A. is now $150,000 for a public college, $300,000 for a private one, like the art school Tom attended.
When Tom talks about his aspirations as "teaching Shakespeare to kids" it has a kind of airy-fairy sound to it. What do you expect from an art school alum? But when you think about it, all he's asking for is the chance to be an English teacher or drama teacher and make enough to support a family. Teaching is a real, professional, middle-class job -- it's not like trying to make it as a comedian or a rock guitarist where you could strike gold or strike out. There are thousands and thousands of positions for people who do just what Tom wants to do. But in many parts of the country, teaching doesn't buy a middle-class lifestyle anymore. The question is, why not?
The answer is rising economic inequality. It's not that teachers are making less; it's that other professionals are making more. While teacher salaries have remained stagnant in recent decades, professional salaries in corporate America have gone through the roof. In 1970, starting teachers in New York City made just $2,000 less than starting Wall Street lawyers; today, they make $100,000 less. And the Reagan and Bush tax cuts for the well-off have allowed the have-mores to keep more. This has bid up housing prices wildly to the point where teacher-headed households -- what Tom aspires to lead -- can no longer afford to buy homes in many parts of the country. In San Francisco, teacher-headed households have been priced out of homeownership in 99.7 percent of the region's census tracts. In Boston that figure is 91.7 percent and in New York it's 92.4 percent. (The Brooklyn home where my grandparents raised their family on teachers' salaries now lists for $1 million -- and it's a decidedly un-trendy location.) What's even scarier is that even in the so-called affordable metro areas like Dallas and Phoenix aren't immune. Teachers are priced out of about half of each. Which brings us back to Tom. He's not from some high-priced enclave like Hollywood or Aspen -- he's from Philly.
Today, we're asking too much of would-be teachers. In the late 1980s, when Jonathan Kozol was researching Savage Inequalities, his book exposing the unequal funding between city and suburban schools, many of the inner-city teachers he interviewed sheepishly confessed to him that they sent their own children to private schools or well-funded suburban public schools. Now that teachers can't afford to move into the good suburban districts or pay the spiking tuition of private schools, becoming a teacher often requires sacrificing the quality of one's own children's education. This is a sacrifice few will make and it is an unfair demand to make of those, like Tom, who are so eager to serve.