Bill’s billions aside, a million’s still a lot

Gosh, 1970. That’s the year my official work life began. It seems a million years ago, surely long enough to be a million dollars ago.

I was 16 that summer. The Spokane Parks Department hired me to teach arts and crafts to 4- and 5-year-olds. My charges and I spent hours in the shade sipping pink Kool-Aid. We got glitter and glue on the picnic tables. One tiny artist stands out in my mind, a sweet girl in the habit of lisping her mouthful of a name, which was Ursula Lasser.

Those are the things I remember, not the money.

In my work life, money has always been an afterthought. It took a statement from the Social Security Administration to inform me that I raked in $122 that summer, when the state minimum wage was $1.60 an hour.

Seen your statement yet? They are sent to tell us the estimated amount of our Social Security benefits at retirement age. Mine won’t be enough — no surprise there.

I was more interested in the columns of numbers representing my entire work history, all those mornings of the alarm going off. My statement lists earnings from ‘70 through ‘99, nearly 30 years of toil. Shouldn’t I be taking it easy by now?

Now for the ugly part: I added up all those numbers.

Last week, we learned that the size of Bill Gates’ fortune dipped from $85 billion to $63 billion in the past year. What’s $22 billion? This is Western Washington, where we’re used to homes we covet costing a half-million.

One million. Wouldn’t you think I’d have made a measly million by now?

But no, my 29 years of labor — as a park worker, proofreader, editor and writer — add up to $733,657. That doesn’t count my ancient history of baby-sitting, and it doesn’t count this year.

"That’s it?" asked my 17-year-old daughter, whose summer job introduced her to the meaning of "a long day at the office." My children have grown up in Microsoft’s shadow. I understand how a million doesn’t sound like much.

Yeah, I told her, that’s it. I was surprised myself. When I get home past 6 p.m. and dinner is some rushed thing covered in Ragu, it feels like I’ve done a million bucks worth of work.

I’m not trolling for sympathy. I knew going in that journalists, at my level anyway, are in the ballpark with teachers when payday rolls around. No one held a gun to my head. I could have done something else, still could. But if the alarm has to go off, I guess I like being here, doing this job.

On Jan. 1, 2001, the state’s minimum wage will jump 21 cents, to $6.71 an hour, the state Department of Labor and Industries announced last week. The raise is tied to an increase in the federal Consumer Price Index, and stems from a 1998 voter initiative.

Oh, good. My daughter, so used to thinking in millions, will get a raise in that minimum-wage, part-time job she loves. Every time I raise the specter of a technology career, she balks.

"Mo-om," she’ll say in that two-syllable way teens do, "I don’t want a job I’ll hate. You don’t have a job you hate."

Couldn’t she just hate it for five years, then retire? No deal. The apple, it seems, fell close to the tree — make that trees, because Dad was a journalist, too.

There’s always Lotto. You know how we all say that if we "only" won a $1 million jackpot, we couldn’t afford to quit our jobs? I’m not so sure.

A million, it turns out, is a lot of money. And a lot of work.

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