Jobs in Post-Reagan Iowa

Garbage Picker at Work

Garbage pickers are everywhere. This is a photo of a gent working near where I lived through my early years, until Kindergarten. I asked him if he lived in the area. He didn’t, but knew about the current occupants of my childhood home, saying they had made improvements, including installation of a new roof. He is not the only one working this trade. While in Colorado Springs recently, the apartment complex where I was staying produced a lot of trash, requiring the dumpster to be emptied once or twice a day. A garbage picker made quick work of an abandoned mattress there, stripping it to get the springs in less than half an hour. He was going sell the scrap metal. I had brief conversations with both of these workers, and they were friendly and industrious. They are a sign of the times.

I don’t propose to make a living picking through neighbors’ garbage, although there is probably income in those carts laden with plastic bags of household detritus. At the same time, there is a dignity of work that is off the radar screen of politicians and people with a secure job and above median household income. Jobs like garbage picking depend on the bottle deposit law, scrap metal prices and sales of second hand goods. They also rely on a consumer culture that is the antithesis of frugal. These are people working in what most would call the margins of society.

Working the Alley

We all take on jobs, helping a friend move, organizing a social gathering, fund raising for a local charity. Our ability to do this work depends upon having a sound economic basis. For many of us, owning our home is part of that economic basis. With the house payment gone, taxes and insurance make our average monthly cost very affordable, much lower than renting an apartment, and with much better living accommodations: space, a garden, proximity to a park and good neighbors. By creating a sound economy where we live, we are freed to volunteer resources in the community.

Most people don’t view garbage picking and volunteering in the community as jobs. When politicians talk about jobs, one hopes they are talking about work that pays a living wage, but that is not the reality. Increasingly, social responsibility is absent from most conversations among employers, with the possible exception of a pet project or two. A job is created or eliminated by an employer based on their economic need. If they are smart, an employer will add jobs only when there is a return on investment in human capital.

During the time since the Reagan administration, there has been constant movement to reduce the risk and expense of human capital. This includes outsourcing functions, part time workers and implementation of business processes that eliminate human work. People talk about the vanishing pension, reduced health benefits and rate of pay, but those seem secondary to me. A smart employer will find the right combination of human capital investment to make a business model work, and then, continuously refine it.

Someone who is cynical about life might say the garbage pickers are entrepreneurs. They are, in some sense of the word. Like any business, they depend on the habits of others and the structure of markets and a social safety net to make a living. When we talk about the wealth trickling down, it looks something like the person in this photograph.

This is the face of entrepreneurship that is often missed by people who say society should create jobs. It is worth noting.

~ Paul Deaton is a native Iowan and regular contributor to Blog for Iowa.

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1 Response to Jobs in Post-Reagan Iowa

  1. Arron says:

    I agree with your analysis. I was often heard saying that under Reagan the phrase “farming the road ditches” had taken on a whole new meaning. It went from meaning farmers would plant every bit of tillable land for crops to farmers “harvesting” recyclable cans and bottles from road ditches to help them make ends meet.


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