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Should you take Michelle Obama's Career Advice?

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03/10/2008
There's not a lot of money in Zanesville. Nearly a quarter of the Ohio town's population, 22.4 percent, is living below the poverty line, including 32.3 percent of those under 18 years of age. That's nearly double the national poverty rate, officially reported by the Census Bureau last August as 12.3 percent overall, nationwide, and 17.4 percent for those under 18. Still, Michelle Obama stopped by the other day during a campaign visit and warned the locals to not go for the big money. "We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we're asking young people to do," she told a group of women at a day-care center. "Don't go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we're encouraging our young people to do that. But if you make that choice, as we did, to move out of the money-making industry into the helping industry, then your salaries respond." Faced with allegedly skimpy paychecks in the "helping industry," Mrs. Obama complained that "many of our bright stars are going into corporate law or hedge-fund management." Rather than an honest attempt at providing career advice for the women in Zanesville, few of whom in all likelihood had ever thought about getting a job in hedge funds, it seems that Michelle Obama was simply interested in taking a cheap political shot. It just so happens that two of the people who took the exact path that Mrs. Obama was railing against -- i.e., choosing jobs in corporate law and hedge-fund management over working in the "helping industry" -- are Hillary Clinton and her daughter. Hillary spent 15 years at the Rose Law Firm, one of the most prestigious corporate law offices in Arkansas, where she represented large companies and served on corporate boards, including Wal-Mart's. In 2006, Chelsea Clinton started working for Avenue Capital Group, a hedge fund that manages approximately $12 billion in assets, specializing in trading in distressed and undervalued credit-related securities and the debt of companies that are nearing or have filed for bankruptcy. The New York Daily News estimated the former first daughter's salary at Avenue Capital to be in the range of $100,000 to $150,000. What Michelle Obama didn't mention during her stop in Zanesville is that she's done pretty well by helping herself to a sizeable slice of "helping industry" money at the University of Chicago Hospital. Employed as vice president for community affairs, Mrs. Obama's annual compensation jumped from $121,910 in 2004, just before her husband was elected to the Senate, to $316,962 in 2005, just after he took office. That's a $195,052 raise -- not bad for someone who looks down her nose at the money-grubbers in "money-making industry." All told, the total income declared by the Obama household on the couple's 2006 income tax return, figuring his Senate salary, book royalties and her compensation from sitting on corporate boards, was $991,296 -- again, not bad for a couple sacrificing themselves in the "helping industry." Still, Mrs. Obama complained to the women in Zanesville about the amount of money she spent on piano, dance and other lessons for her two children while financially struggling in the "helping industry" and suffering under the burden of paying back student loans from her time at Princeton and Harvard. "The salaries don't keep up with the cost of paying off the debt," she said, referring to the Ivy League loans, "so you're in your 40s, still paying off your debt at a time when you have to save for your kids." It's doubtful that many in the audience could feel Mrs. Obama's pain. The median income for female workers in Zanesville last year was $20,142. In surrounding Muskingum County, 88 percent of adults don't have a college degree and an estimated 20 percent don't have high school diplomas. "Barack and I were in that position," continued Michelle Obama, complaining about the college loans. "Up until a few years ago, we were struggling to figure out how we would save for our kids." And then, Shazam!, capitalism saved the day, the "money-making industry" ended the struggle. "The only reason we're not in that position is that Barack wrote two best-selling books," she explained. "It was like Jack and his magic beans." And the truckers in the "money-making industry" who delivered the books? They're not in a "helping industry"? And the truckers are bigger money-grubbers than a hospital's community affairs coordinator who pockets $316,962?
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Contact Ralph Reiland

Ralph Reiland, a restaurant owner, teaches Economics at Robert Morris College

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