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South Dakota's multiple-job holders and the politics of teacher pay

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Rapid City High School teacher Sue Podoll works in her classroom in 2014.

An intriguing story in today's Capital Journal newspaper, of Pierre, proclaims with its headline that "SD leads nation in percentage of multiple job holders."

The story goes on to quote a state official who shifts the focus to South Dakotans' work ethic and willingness to work hard, rather than their need to work two jobs to make up for low wages.

The story piqued my interest because of something it did not mention: the current push to raise teacher pay in South Dakota. As we all know and are constantly reminded, teacher pay in South Dakota has been last or nearly last in the nation for decades. The topic is expected to come up today during the governor's State of the State address.

I think the state's status as the national leader in multiple-job holders says a lot about why South Dakota teachers have been so low paid for so long.

Why? Let's start with the reasons so many South Dakotans work multiple jobs. Personally, I think the need or desire for extra money is a major motivator. Work ethic is also a factor, but if we interviewed the thousands of South Dakotans who work multiple jobs and asked them why they do it, I don't think the most popular response would be "because I like to work." I think it's much more likely that the most popular response would be "for the money" or "because I need the money."

Whatever the motivation, people who hold multiple jobs undoubtedly bring a unique perspective to political debates about wages. In a state where so many people work two jobs — whether it's to make ends meet or get ahead — it stands to reason that very few of those people will coalesce around proposals to raise just one interest group's pay instead of the pay of all those multiple-job workers. It's a classic "what's in it for me" situation.

I don't mean to say teachers do not deserve higher pay. Many certainly do. Their status as perpetual bottom-dwellers on the list of national average teacher pay is plentiful evidence of that. And I have kids in school and know some teachers who deserve much higher pay (and also some who probably deserve lower pay, but that'll get us into a deeper discussion than I want to have today).

Maybe South Dakota teachers will finally make progress in the area of pay this year. It is possible they have been so low-paid for so long that the issue has finally reached critical mass, and South Dakotans may very well coalesce around a proposal to pay teachers more, if for no other reason than to finally bump them up from the bottom of national rankings. There's additional hope for teachers in the minimum-wage increase approved by South Dakota voters in 2014, which was evidence that a majority of South Dakotans — albeit against the wishes of most elected officials in the Republican majority — were and could still be in a mood to boost wages for at least some people.

But I also think there's still a stubborn streak among a significant number of South Dakotans who are not likely to support higher pay for teachers as long as so many other groups of workers are left behind and forced to work multiple jobs. To convince those South Dakotans to support higher pay for teachers, the best approach would seem to be a comprehensive economic program that lifts the boat of teachers along with the boats of everybody else; in other words, a proposal that addresses chronic low wages in all sectors of South Dakota's economy, rather than just one small slice of the public sector.

No such proposal has ever been tried, as evidenced by South Dakota's consistent status as a low-wage state. Instead, our elected leaders have focused on keeping taxes and other costs low for employers, rather than raising the pay of workers (in fact, low pay has been willfully ignored even in the face of state government's own survey data suggesting it's a major problem, as I noted in 2014). Therefore, it's no coincidence that the state's teacher salaries have also remained low. 

Can teachers win higher wages while other South Dakotans, in national-leading percentages, continue to work multiple jobs?

That will be one of the most interesting political questions of 2016.

Contact Seth Tupper at

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