On statistics alone, it was ludicrous for President Vicente Fox of Mexico to say that Mexicans do the menial work in America ''that not even blacks want to do."
If Fox were to tool around our cities and rural regions he would discover that 26 percent of African-American men and 34 percent of African-American women worked at poverty-level wages in 2003, according to the ''State of Working America, 2004-2005," published by the progressive Economic Policy Institute.
That is not as stunning as the 36 percent of Latino men and the 46 percent of Latina women who work in poverty. But you can still find a whole lot of black women cleaning hotel toilets and black men digging ditches.
What would have been much more accurate would have been, ''There's no doubt that Mexican men and women do the work white men won't do." Only 15 percent of white men work at poverty wages (while 26 percent of white women do so).
But that is not the biggest point of the Fox flap. This notion that Mexicans do the work that Americans don't should bother us at several levels. One is that Americans -- all of us -- have to admit that with our overall wealth, especially when compared to nations like Mexico, we have an enigmatic sense of entitlement.
Americans work ridiculous hours and take much less vacation than workers in other developed nations. But as one obvious consequence, we spend less time with our children and often overindulge them in material things to substitute for intimacy. Two-thirds of 8- to 14-year-olds have a television in their bedrooms, and 40 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds now have their own cellphones.
Researchers have found that the more materialistic a teenager or young adult is, the more emotional problems, including depression, that person is likely to develop.
Precisely as today's parents work their tails off to provide comfort, are we also seducing our children to be dismissive of work ethics? Are we leading teenagers to feel entitled to paychecks that are unthinkable for the 45-year-old Mexican gardener or the 50-year-old Caribbean woman polishing a desk?
For instance, in a recent Junior Achievement survey of 1,065 teenagers, 67 percent say they influence what their parents buy. But a quarter of teens pay less than 15 percent of their own expenses for their own clothing, electronics, music, personal products, and gasoline. A decisive 62 percent pay 50 percent or less.
You would expect that as teens become older they take on more responsibility to earn the money for such expenses, and that is massively true for 13- to 16-year-olds. But even at 18 and over, nearly half of teens are still paying 50 percent or less of their expenses for largely optional goods.
After all that comfort, it follows that when the same youth decide to go to work, they expect money to fall from the sky.
The idea of starting at the bottom -- if for nothing but to teach a bit of humility -- is fading. In Junior Achievement's 2004 survey of youth attitudes toward summer jobs, 36 percent of males, many of whom hoped to be hired on construction sites or in factories, expected to make at least $7.50 an hour.
That compares to many reports of $6-to-$7 per hour for thousands of immigrants, legal and illegal, on construction sites, meatpacking plants, and agricultural fields. Only 18 percent of male teenagers and 29 percent of female teens expected their summer job to pay between $5.15, the minimum wage, and $6.
We have taught our teenagers not to touch dirt or care for children. Nearly two-thirds of American teens expected their summer job to be in the air-conditioned environment of a restaurant, fast-food joint, a department store, or an office. Only 7 percent considered lawn care, and only 6 percent considered baby sitting.
Fox was onto something, however botched his message. We are teaching our children to be very picky about work, with inflated notions of its worth. One day, our children just might get picked off by the global economy, beaten out by the children of immigrants. We might ironically discover that children who started at the bottom and grew up knowing that work was not an option actually had a head start in life.
© 2005 Boston Globe