What can you buy with an hour’s labor?
The answer, at least in rural Zambia, is not much. Let’s say you want to buy an egg.
One of the more straightforward things about living in Zambia is that prices are largely standardized. An egg costs one kwacha (about $0.20) pretty much wherever you are, whether you stroll the fluorescent-lighted aisles of the grocery store in the provincial capital or if you call to the boy walking on the side of the road carrying a tray of eggs on his head or if you duck into the small village tuck shop four houses down from your mud hut.
And in my part of the country, the standard going rate for a day’s labor doing piecework is about 8-10 kwacha. This means that an hour of work at typical wages will earn a rural Zambian enough money to buy exactly one egg.
Meanwhile, in the United States the price of an egg depends on factors such as how big it is and whether or not you care that the hen that lays it technically has access to a small, dirty outdoor enclosure so that the poultry farm can advertise its eggs as coming from free-range chickens (you do, but not enough to pay a premium for it). But a dozen of your average garden-variety eggs will typically run you about $2.50. This, interestingly enough, also comes out to around $0.20 per egg.
My rough estimate of the minimum wage in the U.S. obtained through approximately no research at all is $8.00/hour. So in America, that same hour of work by an unskilled laborer will earn him enough money to buy 40 eggs. That’s 40 times the purchasing power of an equivalent hour of labor in rural Zambia.
A minimum-wage worker in America can just barely afford to buy eggs on a regular basis. A subsistence farmer in Zambia definitely can’t.