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Raising Their Wages Could Save Your Life | The Nation

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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Raising Their Wages Could Save Your Life

There's been a media frenzy lately on the shortage of nurses in this country. It's justified; this is a serious public health problem. If you've ever been hospitalized, you've probably noticed that nurses work harder and are often more involved in your care and more knowledgeable than doctors. Seven years ago my father fell into a coma after getting a bone marrow transplant in a fancy research hospital. The doctors gave up on him, and told us we should pull the plug "when we felt ready"; luckily we didn't feel ready, because an enterprising nurse fiddled with the machines a bit, and saved his life. (We still don't know exactly what she did!) Now his health is excellent. He rides his bike every day, enjoys his grandchildren, writes poetry and just retired from his day job. If that nurse hadn't been there --or had been too busy and over-worked to pay attention to him --he'd probably be dead.

Our federal law-makers, in their wisdom, have devised a cheap solution to the nursing shortage: import nurses from other countries. There are serious drawbacks to this strategy. For one, the problem is global. Some of the countries exporting nurses to the U.S. -- India, for example -- are themselves experiencing a nursing shortage. Luring nurses here is just going to worsen the problem for those countries, weakening already-fragile Third World health infrastructures. Secondly, importing new workers won't improve the work conditions in the health care industry. If nurses aren't treated with the respect they deserve, the hard-working, talented folks from India will eventually burn out, too. A study released in March by the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) found that increasing nurses' pay was "the most direct way" to solve the nursing shortage. IWPR also found that unionization helped to raise the nurses wages, and to improve nurse/patient ratios. Granted, the study was funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organizes health care workers, but I've found IWPR reports to be rigorous regardless of funding.

Another clear solution is to improve education opportunities for young working-class women. Reporting an article on vocational education in New York City in the late 1990s, I met girls who were training to be beauticians because they'd dreamed of becoming nurses, but the nursing classes had been cut. As beauticians, they'll be lucky to earn salaries above the poverty line, and will likely take home less than a third of what they'd make as nurses. I love getting my nails done as much as the next person, but we do need nurses more than we need manicurists.

On another note, thanks very much to the reader who points out that the Center for Selective Facts is run by Rick Berman, who heads the Employment Policy Institute, a right-wing group that seeks to keep the minimum wage low (not to be confused, with the Economic Policy Institute, a lefty think tank advocating quite opposite strategies). I was aware of this connection but should have included it in my post. I don't think we can say for certain that the funders for the two groups are the same, though -- Berman is a consultant and lobbyist, so he could be serving any number of masters -- but our reader is right to suspect a close fraternal relationship.

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