Smart and Poor

This post is going to be about the working poor.  I say that first because it is going to take me a little bit to get there.

In my line of work, which is political psychology, we make a good bit of use of a catewhygory called salience.  “My line of work,” will not change, by the way, when I retire for Portland State University.  I’ve been mulling over political psychology ever since there was a subdiscipline called that and I’m going to continue being a political psychologist long after they have stopped paying me for it.

Salience is one of those words, like data, that seem to be “out there,” but which are, in fact, “in here.”  They are something we do, not something “it” does.  Data is a word that comes to us from the empiricist tradition.  It comes to English from the Latin and I am going to give all four principal parts because it is a funny-looking verb for English speakers.  The parts are do, dare, dedi, datus.  You can see the beginnings of data in datus.  It means “to give” and data are “given to us” by the environment.  We now know that nothing is “given to us.”  Conception shapes perception.  It if comes into our minds, it comes in tainted.  That is why rats in mazes observed by English scientists behave differently that rats in mazes observed by German scientists.

Salience comes, Latin again, from salire, which means “to jump.”  We say something is salient if it “jumps out;” it “calls itself to our attention,” we sometimes say.  A fact “jumps out at us” in the same sense that the sun “rises” in the morning.[1]  It is a perfectly natural way to describe the feeling of the occasion, but when you start paying serious attention to it the earth and the sun, you need to understand the process differently.

I am going to show you two tables and give you a little back-of-the-envelope calculation.  It isn’t anything in the tables that I want to talk about.  The tables present data that are salient.  In each, there are comparisons that lead our minds along one path or another.  What I want to talk about is the choice of paths.

Being Poor in OregonHere’s the first table.  It shows who was making how much money in wages in Oregon in 2010.

Here is a little razzmatazz that I put together for a course on public policy.  It doesn’t say anything important.  It simply says what is in the table

1.         One of the ways of calculating a “family wage job” is called the “average covered wage.”  That is the sum of payroll from establishments covered by unemployment insurance law divided by the total number employed at those establishments.  In 2010, the average covered wage was $41,700.  By an eyeball calculation, that fits at about the center of the $35,000–$49,999 bar, the fifth from the left.  If that bar is read at 15%, we can borrow half of it (7.5%) and add it to all the bars to the right and come up with a percent of “family wage jobs.”  It is 54.5%.

2.         That means that 45.5% have “less than family wage jobs.”  You can calculate it, or add up the value of all the remaining bars.

3.         The poverty level for a family of three in 2010 was $17,400.  It would take more bar-splicing to get that exactly, but the total of the two left hand bars is just over 13% and that is close enough for this exercise.  The number is $11,000 for a single individual, so only about 7% of the “households” are poor if they are one person households.

4.         If  the botton 13% of the nonfamily wage earners are below the poverty line (for a family of three), then  32.5% are left in that fuzzy category that is better than poor, but not as good as family wage.  “Family wage” is defined as covering the “basic expenses,” like food, housing, and utilities for the earner, a spouse, and/or two children.

We learn from this chart that in Oregon in 2010, somewhere around 13% of the workforce are going to be living in poverty.  We don’t know who that will be, but if I had money to put on it, I would put the money on children who had been reared in poverty and, as adults, are still poor.

We learn that 32.5% are going to be “better than poor” but not as comfortable as “meeting the basic expenses like food, housing, and utilities for a family of three.  Again, we don’t know who they will be, but we know how many of them there will be.

Here is the second table.  It doesn’t anything much either.  It shows how much schooling was received by the categories “low-wage workers” and “high-wage workers.”[2]  A glance at the table tells you everything you want to know.

Educational Attainment Low – wage workers Higher-wage workers[3]
Less than high school



High School/GED



Some college



College or more



Now we get to my part.  What is the presupposition of the first table so far as jobs and poverty is concerned?  It is that there are only so many jobs that are “family wage jobs.”  When those are filled, we are done.  Everyone else who is in the workforce will have a “less than family wage” job.  That seems obvious, doesn’t it?  If there are 100 students in a classroom with 20 seats, we know that 80 students will be standing or making some other arrangement.  We don’t know which 20 will be seated, but we know how many.  If you want to know how many students will be standing, you look at the first chart.  If you want to know how to get one of the seats for yourself, you look at the second chart.


What is the presupposition of the second table so far as jobs and poverty are concerned?  It is that the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a “higher-wage” job.  If nearly a third of those good jobs are held by people who have college degrees “or more,” and if I want one of those jobs, I had better get me some college “or more.” [4]

And that is true, of course, up to the point where we run out of higher wage jobs.  When we have more “college or more” workers than we have “higher wage jobs,” then we will start gathering a crowd of people who have college or more and putting them into “less than family wage jobs” because those are the only jobs left.

And this returns us to salience.  By this reading, the most important aspect of the table on the distribution of wages is the presupposition that there are so many higher wage jobs and not more.  A table could be constructed that dealt with the processes by which a larger number of jobs is produced, but it would not be an “educated workforce” table.  The whole presupposition of this table is systemic—there are so many such jobs and no more, exactly as in the classroom, there are 20 chairs and no more.

Conversely, the presupposition of the table on education and wages is that the more education you have, the higher your wages will be.  It is individualistic rather than systemic.  It tells me what I must do to improve the likelihood that I will get one the jobs in those top few bars the the distribution.  It has nothing at all to do with how many such jobs there are, only what I must do to get one.

So the most important aspect of these two tables, by this reading, is not what they say but on what they presuppose.  The salience, what jumps out at me, is that you can look at either the individual goals table or the systemic capacity table—provided that you know that there are two and what the limitations of each one are.

Otherwise not.  And that’s why it is sometimes handy to have a political psychologist around.

[1] Incidentally, my grammar checker harrumphed at me for that sentence.  It said it was a fragment.  What do you think?  Does that look like a fragment to you?

[2] Notice that we are permitted to know that something is low—absolutely low—but we are not permitted to know that anything is high, except in relation to other members of the category.  It’s just a euphemism used by economists.

[3] Just a language note.  Look how statisticians wiggle to avoid saying “high wage.”  The pattern here should be either high wage and low wage OR higher wage and lower wage.  Neither of those sets is chosen, so although we have “low-wage workers,” we do not have “high wage workers.”  Does that strike you as odd?

[4] I’m going to make this pitch on February 26 to a bunch of senior political science majors, most of whom will not blink at the idea that their education will put them in line for a job that pays “higher” wages.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Smart and Poor

  1. Karl Hess says:


    Of course it is a complete sentence to an English-speaker. Computers are not very good at language. I suspect our English instructors at Randolph more than a half century ago would have agreed with the computer.

    In footnote 2, and interesting use of passive tense “are permitted’.

    Like you, I continue in my profession after the pay ends.


    • hessd says:

      I think you are a great example of continuing the profession. I’m surprised I didn’t think of that; but then, it was a new thought to me even about myself.

      I do have my quarrels with the grammar checker, but I have always thought it was pretty good on what a fragment is. The fact is that I like using fragments in my writing and when I use them, I know what I am doing.

      Today is the day I try out my smart and poor pitch to my public policy class. We’ll see how it goes.


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