Much gets made–and this blog makes much of–the quality of life in France. I’m referring in part to the food-wine-beauty thing, but mostly I’m talking about all those government-subsidized freebies that are, well, pretty much life-changing. High-quality healthcare that doesn’t cost consumers a dime, generous amounts of paid vacation, free or incredibly affordable childcare as of the age of…birth, among the world’s most generous unemployment benefits, tons of subsidies for the arts, for housing, for large families, for first-time entrepreneurs, for journalists. If you think a discount, exemption or aid for something might exist, it usually does. But the flip side of all these valuable government bennies is that, on average, the French earn…way less than Americans.
The national average wage for 2012 in the United States is $44,322. In France, it is $33,228—that’s 25% less. That’s one quarter less money annually. The difference in salaries feels particularly sharp when you live in Paris, where the cost of living doesn’t feel all that different from New York. In fact, in my own experience, most of those consumer products you can’t really do without buying, like cereal, shampoo and clothes, cost more, and there is no Walmart-style discount industry in France. (The numbers confirm this, consumer and grocery prices are higher in Paris, but rent is somewhat less than NY).
But even more striking is when you look at the highest earners in France. Or rather what it takes to earn a place among the highest salaries: not much, relative to American incomes. With a salary of $53,040 in France you’re already admitted into the club of the 10% highest salaries in the country. And once you break 100K, at $121,930, you’re among the top 1% of salaries in France! This is the average salary of a medium-level American executive (like a marketing manager or an IT manager). In the U.S., in 2012, the top 1% of incomes were those above $394,000. The American 1% club earns more than three times the salaries of their French counterparts.
But in the U.S., in 2012, something else happened too. The gap between the top 1% earner and the rest of the country grew to its widest level in history. The top 1% of Americans earned one-fifth of all income in the United States—breaking the previous record set in 1928 (the year before the historic stock market crash). That means that if the highest paid Americans are earning much more than their French counterparts, the lowest paid are actually earning much less.
The minimum wage in New York State is $7.25 an hour. In France, the federal minimum wage is $12.26 an hour. That’s nearly half as much for the minimum wage worker in the US—where there is no such thing as free government anything except for the most direly poor. Workers in seven of the 10 largest occupations in the U.S. typically earn less than $30,000 a year—well below the national average salary of $44,322. And yet that includes most Americans.
If you don’t get the opportunity in France to earn as much as you do in the U.S.—indeed, you’re statistically guaranteed pretty much to earn less—this is not, by French standards, a bad thing. Certainly I would prefer to have the same revenue opportunities in Paris that I would in New York, but somehow it seems to work out. The French measure what makes life worth living in a different way than Americans. The good life is more nuanced than being part of the 1% or even 10% club.
But philosophy of life aside, if France’s 1% club seems like the little league compared to the U.S., here’s the most significant reason why it’s perhaps not so bad to be in the minor league: because at least the other 99% are still in the game. There is no special status needed to get into the government freebies club in France. French minimum wage earners (aside from earning more than US minimum wage workers) are entitled to the same quality-of-life benefits as France’s one percent.
The other 99% in the U.S. aren’t really entitled to much except the right to try to grapple and leap their way over the widening wage gap and up the totem pole of financial success that is so integral to the idea of the U.S.A. Good luck to all those (growing number of) Americans making less than the average national salary.
And here’s hoping that some of those $130,000-a-year IT managers get the technical kinks worked out in the Obamacare websites. At least, then, 100% of Americans might be entitled to healthcare.