Low Wages are Slowly Strangling the Creative Class

Income inequality is going to be a defining issue of our generation, no doubt. But one issue I think isn’t getting enough attention, possibly if not definitely from ignorance, is the mere existence of the creative class, and what the slow, drawn-out asphyxiation of the creative class really means.

Now, for a lot of people, why would you care about the Creative Class, a Marxist-sounding something you didn’t know exists? In fact,

What is the “Creative Class”?

The creative class, most simply put into words, are the artists, musicians, poets, writers, dancers, sculptors, etc. They can be rich, poor, undiscovered, wildly successful, or complete “failures” (by conventional societal standards). Not unlike runners, there is no requirement or certification to be a “creative” other than actively “doing” your creative thing. It is the restless group of people that cannot rest, cannot find fulfillment, unless they are pursuing their chosen art(s).

little shop of horrosNow, my inspiration for this post came from my good friend Alex, who had invited me to see a rehearsal of Little Shop of Horrors, a musical she’s in (also, I highly recommend Seattle-area folks go see it).

What stuck out to me was that this musical was on Bainbridge Island, a two-hour round-trip ferry ride from Seattle (but the ferry serves beer!).  A 3-hour practice for the cast amounted to a 5-hour time-suck in their days.

Not only that, but this show is unpaid. Well… for the cast at least.

All in all,  it totaled to a small group of highly dedicated artists sacrificing their time, effort, and money (for the commute) to be part of a small musical production.

And the most interesting thing about it? They were all happy. Not just happy. Ecstatic.

One cast member, Shani King, works four jobs: Coffee barista in West Seattle, Old Navy service rep, service person at Sweet Deal on Bainbridge Island, and she teaches dance once a week. “The fact that it takes four jobs to be able to survive, and then to do a show at the same time, is kind of ridiculous,” she says.

Four jobs is definitely ridiculous, but what was even more ridiculous to me was watching her go through a grueling rehearsal, with the knowledge in the back of my head that, unlike me, she’s probably not headed home to sip wine and relax at the end of the night.

So what do I mean when I say the creative class is dying in America?

usefulness of majorWell, something I remember vividly from my college admissions process, and I think still holds true today, is the devaluation of arts degrees. The idea that liberal arts degrees are a “waste of money” or have become “obsolete”. The idea that someone who dedicates oneself to deepening one’s knowledge of the arts is just wasting their time, and potentially a portion of your future paychecks.

But here’s what I always say at parties (and yes, I do say obnoxious shit like this at parties. I don’t know why people invite me anywhere. I really don’t):

The Civil War never would have happened if a fictional book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, had never been written. Because it’s not facts & science that changes minds, it’s irrational emotions. Feelings are what causes world-altering shifts in attitudes & culture.

Likewise, with our current climate change debates, it’s not the facts that prove icebergs are melting, therefore we should care. It’s photography like this, where 35,000 walrus’ need a place to rest in lieu of their preferred lounging areas (ice flows) melting, that are going to change public opinion and mobilize us in ways that a page full of numbers never could.

So when I say that the creative class, is important, you know I damn well mean it.

And when I say the death of the creative class is nothing less than a catastrophe, you know I damn well mean it.

How minimum wage is killing the creative class:

The blue line is annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker

The blue line is annual earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker

This subtitle’s meaning will immediately resonate with all creatives, and most likely confuse everyone else.
The creative class is the small subgroup of people who are so drawn to their art, they will die for it, with little to no recognition at all. Compare that to other subgroups that are motivated by fame (celebrities), power (politicians), or money (business people).

Now, for the creative class to actually create, certain things need to happen. For one, they need to not die of starvation, which means basic food & shelter is a must. They also need the flexibility known as “time” to actually create. I’m not sure if you knew this, but creating magnificent works of art & literature actually takes a good chunk of time out of every single day.

Historically, artists used to seek out “sponsors” (also known as patronage) who would support them while they created, and their sponsor was paid back with recognition and status. This system existed so that creatives could have the time & basic resources to refine their art, without being bogged down by pesky concerns such as supporting their basic human needs.

Enter the 40-hour workweek. A challenge, but still do-able.

Enter the stagnant minimum wage in America, that has lost value through inflation, while the prices of food, shelter, education, and other necessities have risen.

Enter the new, mostly American concept of “time debt”, that has come from people having to take multiple, low-paying jobs to pay for basic necessities. This puts such a time-squeeze on an individual, free time, sleep, productivity, and exercise all suffer.

minimum wage rent

Michelangelo probably would not have finished The Last Judgement on the Sistine Chapel if he was taking orders at four different Dunkin Donuts all over town for 70 hours a week, only to get paid barely enough to feed himself. If Michelangelo worked multiple minimum-wage jobs, he probably never would have created much of anything. He would have spent all non-working time commuting, sleeping, and freaking out.

Which is what’s happening to a lot of my creative friends right about now.

little shp of horror

Three talented women, part of the unpaid cast of Little Shop of Horrors

When I asked the cast of Little Shop of Horrors if they ever had to sacrifice pursuing their art just to survive, the answers varied, and were nothing short of amazing.

Alex stays at her waitress job, where her employers regularly violate employees rights (like not posting the schedule until one day before a shift, withholding pay, and charging their servers for their customers’ credit card processing fees), because she’s afraid if she goes to a different restaurant, they won’t give her the same hours that allow her to do musicals at night.

“I have a degree [in the arts], but I haven’t had any steady jobs in this line of work. It sucks because the kind of day jobs you get is coffee, or hospitality. And usually those are the jobs you get minimum wage for. Then taking time off of a minimum wage job to do a show where you get paid nothing is almost impossible. Having a degree in this, and trying to support myself are two completely separate things.”

-Alex Davis-Brazil

Meanwhile, the assistant stage manager, Eugene Price, put it succinctly: “I’ve generally had to make the choice between something that’s going to further my career, or something that’s going to pay me money. Generally, a minimum wage job that is going to pay me enough to live, doesn’t give me enough time to be creative. I’m lucky I have supportive parents, but that’s a luxury” (emphasis mine).

Yes, having supportive parents is a luxury, but it’s become increasingly clear that supportive parents my be a necessity, not just a luxury.


So are all Creatives doomed to live in poverty, or worse, with their parents for the rest of their lives?

(Please note: That was a joke. I do not actually think living in poverty is better than living with parents)

There are a few things we can all do. One is to start actually recognizing that the arts are, in fact, very important to society.

For instance, reading fiction actually teaches people how to be more empathetic through the practice of putting themselves in a different characters’ shoes. Photography does not just document the world, it actively changes it. We all can see how the documentary, Blackfish, is changing the public perception of SeaWorld in real-time. Rent, the musical, humanized and de-stigmatized HIV/AIDS, and taught us a powerful history lesson that American schools failed to do.

Another thing we can do is actively encourage the arts, via our wallets.

Yes, I know, nobody likes spending money when you can get things for free. Case in point: Downloading music on the internet. But hey! Tonight is Little Shop of Horrors’ “pay what you can” show. Maybe you should do more things like that. But actually pay. Don’t freeload.

The last thing you can do is – if this applies to your state – fucking vote to raise the minimum wage in the upcoming November midterm elections.  And don’t give me that “bad for jobs, bad for small businesses” bullshit. Just look at SeaTac.


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