On September 1, 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an 83-year-old adjunct professor at Duquesne University, died in abject poverty. Professor Vojtko taught French at Duquesne for twenty-five years. She received up to $3,500 per course and made an annual salary of less than $10,000. This is standard pay for adjuncts, who comprise 76 per cent of the teaching workforce of tertiary institutions in the United States (tenure and tenure track professors make up a mere 24 per cent) and receive an average $2,700 per course.
Like most adjuncts, Professor Vojtko received no health care or benefits. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she could not pay her bills. She took a second job in a fast food restaurant and slept in her office until the university threw her out. In the spring of 2013, Duquesne fired her for no longer being "effective". Living in poverty, dying of cancer, Professor Vojtko never missed a day of class.
Vojtko’s story is unique neither to adjuncts, who shared their own stories of privation on Twitter under the #IAmMargaretMary hashtag, nor to other American workers. In the post-employment economy, full-time jobs are parcelled into low-wage contract labour, entry-level jobs turn into internships, salaries are paid in exposure, and dignity succumbs to desperation.
On August 28, 2013, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Most Americans associate the march with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and call for racial harmony. They remember half of the targeted "twin evils" of racism and economic deprivation.
They remember the freedom, and forget the jobs. But the two are inseparable.
"If a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists," King proclaimed in 1968. Economic opportunity, he argued, is essential to human rights.
How far we have fallen today, when survival is sold as an aspiration to the poor. How facile our claims of "equal opportunity" when the content of one's character is eclipsed by the content of one's wallet. Citizens struggling to pull themselves up – through education, through hard work -- sink back down, into debt from student loans, into desperation from appeasing the few and powerful who defaulted on their future.
America has abandoned any pretence of social mobility. In 2012, the income gap between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of America passed the record set in 1927, at the onset of the Great Depression. 40 percent of Americans now make less than minimum wage workers did in 1968, the year King died.
The hidden hand...
The problem in America is not that there are no jobs. It is that jobs are not paying.
America is becoming a nation of zero-opportunity employers, in which certain occupations are locked into a terrible pay rate for no valid reason, and certain groups – minorities, the poor, and increasingly, the middle class – are locked out of professions because they cannot buy their way in.
Why was Margaret Mary Vojtko, an experienced teacher who did the same work as a tenured professor, making less than $10,000? Because her university refused to pay her more than $10,000. Why is Deirdre Cunningham, a New York woman who works two jobs as a bank teller and a sales associate, living in a homeless shelter? Because her employers refuse to pay her enough to live anywhere else. Cunningham's plight is common: 28 percent of homeless families include at least one working adult.
During the recession, American companies found an effective new way to boost profits. It was called "not paying people". "Not paying people" tends to be justified in two ways: a fake crisis ("Unfortunately, we can’t afford to pay you at this time…") or a false promise ("Working for nearly nothing now will get you a good job later").
In reality, profits are soaring and poorly compensated labour tends to lead to more poorly compensated labour. Zero opportunity employers are refusing to pay people because they can get away with it. The social contract does not apply to contract workers – and in 2013, that is increasingly what Americans are.
One can see the truth of King's equation of income and rights in the powerlessness of low-wage workers to change their situation. Wages are not corresponding to demand or credentials. In a post-employment economy, wages are both arbitrary and fixed.
People who justify poverty wages tend to make two claims. The first is that desirable jobs have a surplus of applicants so their pay is inherently less. In 2013, every job has a surplus of applicants, yet the pay for some jobs – Wall Street bankers – rises while the pay for other jobs stagnates or disappears.
The second claim is that low-wage workers are easily replaceable and offer no benefit to society. This is the argument aimed at service workers, who are on strike because they make so little they cannot afford food or rent.
Putting aside that anyone working full-time should be able to survive on their income, and that service workers deserve the same respect as any employee, this argument falls flat because educated professionals whose work offers tremendous benefit to society are also poorly paid.
Teaching, nursing, social work, childcare and other "pink collar" professions do not pay poorly because, as Slate's Hanna Rosin argues, women "flock to less prestigious jobs", but because jobs are considered less prestigious when they are worked by women. The jobs are not worth less – but the people who work them are supposed to be.
Although zero opportunity employers disproportionately hurt women and minorities, everyone suffers in an economy that does not value workers.
"I didn't risk my life in Afghanistan so I could come back and watch people go hungry in America," writes Jason Kirell, a 35-year-old veteran who is on food stamps. "I certainly didn't risk it so I could come back and go hungry." He notes that it is common for military wives to subsist on food stamps while their husbands work overseas and for veterans to end up on food stamps upon their return.
The Americans who serve their country the most are paid the least and treated the worst. As Kirell detailed his plight, House Republicans voted to cut the nation's food stamp program by $40 bn.
Into the Abyss
In America, there is little chance at a reversal of fortune for those less fortunate. Poverty is a sentence for the crime of existing. Poverty is a denial of rights sold as a character flaw.
There are two common responses to the plight of the low-wage worker. The first is "That's just the way things are", a response which serves both to derail empathy and deter people from imagining the way things could be.
The second is "But it worked out for me." This is the refrain of the tenured to the adjunct, the staff to the freelancer, the rich to the poor: "But it worked out for me; the system is fine, it worked out for me."
The problem is that in an economy of falling wages and eroded safety nets, there is a very fine line between "you" and "me".
People not only fall through the cracks, they live in the cracks as a full-time occupation. The view from the cracks is a lot clearer than the view from above. When you look down on people, they stop being people. But when you watch from below, you see how easy it is to fall.
Personal success does not excuse systematic exploitation. "That's just the way things are" does not explain widespread suffering. Ask why things are the way they are, why things are not working out for working Americans.
And when they do not give you an answer? Start demanding one.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
You can follow Sarah on twitter @sarahkendzior
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.