Social value should figure into wages paid

Let’s get down and dirty about the most important economic issue facing America and Indiana. It starts in toilets.

You want the public or private toilets you use to be clean. It’s a public health issue. There are businesses you don’t visit because you don’t think they have clean toilets.

I don’t know of any studies, but I’d bet chains such as McDonald’s have a sense of the business they get because their toilets are reasonably clean.

Cleaning restrooms is not a job many people seek. The pay is very low and the public’s gratitude is absent.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, janitors and cleaners (excluding maids and housekeeping cleaners) averaged $12.99 per hour nationally and $12.10 in Indiana. That’s in the neighborhood of 55 percent of the compensation for the average job in the country.

If clean toilets and clean buildings are important, why don’t the people who keep them clean get paid more? Would $35 per hour be too much?

Some will say you don’t have to have much of an education to do the job. What does that have to do with the value of the job?

Others will cite market conditions. They focus on the supply of workers and note there are many qualified to clean toilets, but few who can design safe bridges. Hence, they argue, the scarcity of engineers gives them higher wages than the multitudes of janitors. Yet in that argument, they ignore the value people place on clean toilets everywhere, every day, every hour.

Americans talk a lot about low wages and the resulting mal-distribution of income. The answer is not raising the minimum wage, a clumsy tool for lazy public policymakers. Resolution of the problem will come when business owners open clear communications with consumers and employees. That’s not easy to do. Yet it is done, willy-nilly, daily by every business, government and not-for-profit agency. In practice, what a job is worth depends on the value of that job as perceived by the employer. Occasionally it may be changed by customers and employees who speak up.

Firms use certification levels, years of schooling and a host of production metrics to evaluate jobs only because they have little, if any, input from end users of a product or service.

Businesses depend on coarse market signals, such as increased or decreased sales, to tell them how they are doing. But a growth or decline of sales only opens new questions about performance and the competition.

It’s hard to say how much a janitor should be paid. Is it possible the growth of shopping and working over the internet is partly a result of shoppers and workers wanting better sanitation and the sense of dignity that comes from clean toilets? Until social value is considered, janitors will be underpaid.

Morton Marcus is an economist, formerly with the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. Send comments to