Bryan Caplan  

Dude, Who Will Shovel My Snow?

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In my neighborhood, many households would pay unskilled workers $30/hour or more to shovel snow.  I would, that's for sure.  But no one comes door-to-door offering these services.  The obvious explanation is that (a) teens are the only unskilled workers in my affluent neighborhood, (b) these teens don't need to do hard manual labor to make money, and (c) that the snow limits the influx of unskilled labor - teen or adult - from less affluent areas.

Questions: Does anyone live in or know of neighborhoods with an obviously positive equilibrium quantity of snow shoveling services?   If so, what are their characteristics?  Does anyone remember what this market looked like in earlier decades?  If the snow shoveling market dried up, what exactly happened?


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COMMENTS (35 to date)
mike shupp writes:

My recollection is that around the late 1950's, shoveling a path from door to sidewalk (3' wide, maybe 20' long) earned 50 cents; doing the front sidewalk as well would have brought this up to say $1.25. For about $5.00 you'd do the whole driveway as well (say 20' x 20'). Not big money, and you'll note it was piecemeal, not at hourly rates. (The minimum wage at that point was 90 cents/per hour, and as I recall, the typical shoveling job ran to about 1-1/2 to 2 hours.)

What ended snow shoveling? Affluence, for one -- once kids started getting 5 buck/week allowances (or more), which middle class teenagers were generally getting by the 1960's, the payoff for shoveling snow generally didn't seem worth the effort. And affluence secondly, since about that point homeowners started aquiring little tractors and air blowers which handled most snowfalls about as well as 12 year old kid with a shovel.

So the market didn't pay especially well, and fewer and fewer people wanted a teen ager or younger kid shoveling their snow -- maybe one house per block in the suburbs. Plus, at best, shoveling snow is far from a steady, predictable source of income. So kids gave up asking their neighbors if they wanted to be shoveled out.

no writes:

Snow shoveling services are in robust supply in places where it snows more than once a year. Go to any town in the midwest and they'll be crews driving around with big snowblowers doing sidewalks. (Or neighborhood kids shoveling snow).

Ryan writes:

I agree with "no". My siblings live in Wauwatosa, WI (suburb of Milwaukee); it isn't as affluent as Fairfax, but it's reasonably upscale, and you can definitely find a neighborhood kid to shovel your driveway. Bryan, it sounds like you're on the bad part of an "increasing returns to scale" production function

Phil writes:

I live in Ottawa, where we get too much snow. Most of my neighbors hire a service to clean their driveways. When it snows, a huge plow comes by, with the corporate logo on the huge rear wheels, and does about 1/3 of the houses on my street. It takes about five minutes a driveway, tops.

Perhaps anyone who doesn't want to do it themselves would have hired one of these services. I don't remember these existing when I was a kid.

Joe writes:

I live in an affluent community in Brooklyn consisting mainly of immigrants from the Soviet Union. My own parents came to America from Russia during the 70’s.
a/b
Many teenagers and young adults, myself included, shovel snow in my neighborhood. The price however for shoveling usually averaged about 30-60 dollars an hour depending on how bad the snow was. That may seem excessive but considering that we shoveled snow for people who either had several Benzes, a Ferrari, or a Bentley the price did not seem unreasonable. When I started shoveling snow, at around thirteen, an Eighteen year old veteran asked how much I charged. I said about twenty an hour, he abruptly told me to look at the cars people in the community drove. I have passed this little tidbit on to younger kids in the neighborhood.
While it’s true that I never “needed” the money an extra 100-300 dollars was no joke for a few hours work. My group of friends had discovered that a little extra cash could go to alcohol and all the other wonderful things you discover as a teenager. I’m 22 and an Engineer but I would no question give up a Sunday morning to shovel. I do want to say that many kids I know were too lazy to shovel even their own home (I obviously do that one free). My neighbor’s kid had a Benz convertible and if you guessed that he was too spoiled to shovel you would be right.
c
Many individuals from adjacent neighborhoods would come. This group was comprised mainly of South American and less affluent Soviet immigrants who lived a 10-20 minute walk from where I lived. This actually forced the kids where I live to wake up early (if the snow stopped falling at night). If you started at noon you would make very little. In fact you knew that by 2 pm if the house was not shoveled no one was home. We never would equate, past 2 p.m, that an un-shoveled house desired shoveling.

Mercure writes:

I agree with No, Ryan and Phil. Here in Quebec, the shoveling services are negotiated each autumn as a yearly contract. It seems like there's a lack of liquidity in your neighborhood...

Ironman writes:

Let's not forget the possibility of capital being used to substitute for labor. It wouldn't take very many such devices to be spread among a neighborhood's homeowners to make a snow shoveling business run by the most marginal workers in the U.S. lose its popularity and ultimately disappear. Kind of like how concealed carry permits for gun owners would appear to contribute to reducing crime....

Peter writes:

I think it depends where you live (both culturally and socioeconomic).

I moved to Cleveland a couple years ago and was surprised to find not only do kids not knock on the door to shovel but also you can't flag a truck down with a plow to plow your driveway for $20 and five minutes of their time. They will stop but all have contracts where they will plow X times a year for Y money irregardless of snowfall. It's a great deal for them as it's a constant income that doesn't depend on snowfall but at the same time they are def losing money from one-offers like me. What amazes me is I called around and flagged down a bunch of non-local trucks and it is truly a informal cartel; they simply don't budge and all are independent self employed folk. Oh well left Cleveland so no loss.

When I lived in Wisconsin not only did you have kids knocking on your door but you had guys with trucks who would notice your snow covered driveway or you out their breaking your back with a shovel and offer to a quick plow for $20.

Living East Midlands England now (and just got a rare snow storm) I noticed nobody shovels or plows period and I am starting to wonder what the liability laws are given I have sheets of ice everywhere, both the public roadways and walkways because, as far as I can tell, they are too good to shovel.

In Germany (ja I have lived a lot of places) never had anybody offer to plow or shovel.

Bosnia though was very similar to Wisconsin in that you always had kids and guy with plows offering to get rid of your snow.

My anecdotal observation is the best place to get solid snow services are poor areas (inner ring suburbs, blue-collar areas, rural areas, eastern europe) or high liability areas (pretty much anywhere it snows in the US that has sidewalks or public thoroughfares ... which rules out the suburbs)

Fenn writes:

Similarly, when I was growing up teens did much of the lawn mowing and newspaper delivery. These are usually done by adults now.

Andrew writes:

The market for snow removal is very lively in Calgary, Canada. Typically the landscaping companies, who also scoop up a lot of low-skilled labour, do the snow removal in the winter.

rjs writes:

in the the lake erie snow belt, everyone negotiates either an annual deal or a per diem deal before the season starts; we pay a neighbor $15 per, for plowing a 150 foot driveway..

Frank writes:

Where I grew up - Willingboro, NJ - there was a law that stated you had to clear your sidewalk and driveway within 24 hours after a snow fall. It made a great market for me as a kid. It also made for great comedy when as part of a civics lesson we went to visit the court and saw people trying to get out of a ticket they received for not shoveling their snow. One guy even brought in a bent shovel as "proof" he tried to clear the snow but couldn't. The judge almost kicked us out for laughing so much.

Peter writes:

Frank:

Most places still have that law, not sure why they don't enforce it. I mean lots of nanny state laws I despise but this is one of the few that I support. I would rather everybody be forced to maintain their little part of the commons for the benefit of all than a tax hike that has the city contracting sidewalk and driveway snow removal.

I know Milwaukee, WI was big on enforcement (I think they seen it as a money maker like speed traps in Texas) but never heard of anybody getting a ticket for this in years in Cleveland; yet I know it is on the books cause I looked it up once after moving there,

SydB writes:

I recollect living in San Diego most of my life. Thus can't help you. Sorry.

Jared writes:

Prof Caplan,

I grew up in a small town south of Cleveland, and used to shovel snow for cash. These are very dated observations, but as I recall:

1) nobody--and I mean nobody--was willing to negotiate an hourly wage. Everybody wanted to pay piece-rate. And they rarely, if ever, could credibly commit to what, precisely, you were to shovel (i.e., contracts were *very* incomplete). I'd often consider myself finished, only to discover that the curiously flat part of 'the lawn' was, in fact, a patio half the size of the driveway that they also wanted shoveled.

2) below two or three inches snowfall, nobody was willing to pay more than $10 (CPI conversion from 1995 to present: $13.75; feel free to simply double it if you don't like the CPI) for 4 car lengths of driveway, two cars wide.

3) And while the difficulty of the job is an increasing convex function of the snow accumulation, households' WTP appeared to be an increasing concave function. I often found the only area of intersection was (0,0).

[Note: I didn't think about it like this at the time. Just sayin'.]

4) What profitable opportunities that were available were almost completely destroyed by reliably working snowblowers. My only redemption for my last year in the gig was renting one from a neighbor (in exchange for pushing it up and down his driveway first, of course). But not many households--outside those that actually come to your house for Christmas--will rent their snowblowers to enterprising kids with a crappy shovel and a grin.

And that said, I'm now going outside to clean off my own patch of snowed-in space. Merry Christmas!

Dave Tufte writes:

I don't have a surplus of shoveling, but I have a surplus of ATV plowing.

I like to shovel: it's good exercise, and reminds me of my childhood in Buffalo.

I live in Cedar City, Utah, now, and many people have trucks (but not too many with plows), and ATV's (often with plow attachments). Plus, the powder is light here, and my driveway isn't huge.

I usually get at least one offer to plow in every large storm, sometimes more. Our neighborhood sidewalks are done - without prompting - by people in the neighborhood.

So ... characteristics of my neighborhood. I would say 60% of the households, and 70% of the people are Mormons (who have a pretty serious sense of community and charity). A big fraction of households contain hunters, campers, or burners of (often self-chopped) wood. Everyone drives, the driving age is 15 (although you can drive an ATV at a younger age), and all homes have multiple vehicles. A significant fraction of households have weekend farms or ranches.

Robinson writes:

When I was 10-14 I would have loved to get $30 for shoveling snow. But I went from door to door, and I feel like almost everyone had shoveling or snowplow services that did it for them (except my neighbors who saved it for me).

I think the main difficulty is matching up consumers with producers- even if hundreds of people in my neighborhood wanted their sidewalk shoveled, that could be about 1/50 houses- I wasn't going to get rejected that many times. Craigslist wasn't around yet, and I'm not sure if kids finding jobs from anonymous adults on Craigslist would be socially acceptable today.

Unit writes:

Have you tried putting a sign up or posting a message on Craiglist?

Elvin writes:

Here in a suburb of Chicago, we all have snow blowers. Sometimes I'll do my whole neighborhood if I happen to be the first one out, but I always try to help out two or three neighbors, knowing that they will help my family when I am out of town. I tell people who move here to buy a snowblower by October. Every November, I pull the snowblower out and make sure that is working properly.

I think your problem in Washington is that such a snow is rare, and people are poorly equiped (snow shovels, snowblowers, boots, scarves) to handle it. With a bit more regularity (global cooling?), a market and/or routine would develop.


agnostic writes:

I remember teaming up with my best friend when we were in middle school to go shovel driveways. This was around 1994 in Montgomery County, MD (not the really rich parts, though).

Going through your reasons, I agree with 1), but disagree with 2). Teenage unemployment is at an all-time high of over 25% -- I'm sure they'd love an extra $30, especially since their parents have probably been subsidizing them less since the recession.

So we have teenagers who would like to make some easy money, but can't. What's keeping them back? Helicopter parents -- "oh no, YOU'RE not going to traipse around in the snow on a day like this!" Aside from the paranoia, there's also the beefed-up activity list that parents have scheduled for them (what will colleges think?).

Plus teenagers are a lot less mobile than 20 or 30 years ago, just measured by what percent have a driver's license. It's been plummeting. I realize that they wouldn't be using cars to go door-to-door anyway, but the decline in driving (or biking, for that matter) shows how shut-in young people have become since the mid-1990s.

The NYT had an article in Dec 2007 about how the market for sleds had basically disappeared. There's a tiny niche of expensive extreme sports sleds, and a handful of throw-away plastic sleds, but sleds that people would use habitually because the average person likes to go outside in winter are gone. Again I think that's mostly due to helicopter parents.

Andrew T writes:

Interesting you ask ... Friday evening I was with some people who were staying in a shelter. One guy asked another if he was going to do some shoveling. The response was an unambiguous yes. This anecdote gives evidence of a supply near the shelter, but does not give evidence of a surplus for the neighborhood. Taking a different approach, you could call a snow removal service. There are 9 companies listed in the Prince William County phone book under snow removal service. Perhaps these companies are representative of those connecting supply with demand.

Gary Rogers writes:

I wonder if economists give enough credit to the burning of fossil fuels as a substitute for labor and how much this makes our lives easier. Teenage boys with shovels used to move snow, now we have snow plows and snow blowers that clear a driveway in five minutes. We used to walk or ride a horse to town and now we have cars that travel the interstate at better than 70 mph. We used to use horses or oxen to plow our fields and now look at the size of the tractors that do the work. I believe this is why our lives have become so much more prosperous since the invention of the steam engine in the late 1700s. Inexpensive fuel and the internal combustion engine are a great substitute for manual labor. Put me down for a big carbon footprint this Christmas. I'll take coal in my stocking any day.

Badger writes:

Snow blowers. Have you heard of them?

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:

The last time someone came around looking to shovel walks, I think dinosaurs were still roaming the earth. Everyone on my block used to shovel themselves out and then give a hand to anyone who was unable to do so.

I can recall our first heavy snowfall after my dad died. It was just my mom and me, and we were bracing ourselves for a lot of shoveling. I awoke the next morning to the muffled sound of shovels grating along concrete; and when I went to the window, there was my neighbor and his four sons digging us out.

The years have passed, and a few of us remain on the block. Some of the people who are my parents age can't rely upon their own children to clear their walks (times have changed), so my husband clears the walks on our side of the street; and one of our neighbors clears the other side. Once the guys hit their 40's, Santa gave them snowblowers. :)

In return, there are times when we find that someone has brought in our garbage cans or we are given garden fresh vegetables. We've even come home a few times to find our front lawn mowed.

So, from an economic point of view, I guess you could say we're exchanging goods and services (bartering); which is a less mushy way of saying that we're all looking out for our neighbors. :)

steve writes:

They probably just think you need a license to shovel snow.

DanT writes:

Living in southern Alexandria (Fairfax County), an affluent neighborhood next to a very afflent neighborhood and 20 minute walk from a poor neighborhood. Our neighborhood has a complete spectrum of ages: young parents with infants through too old to clear their own driveways. We see them walking around our neighborhood: kids generally hanging out together in age-segregated groups.

I shoveled my driveway and sidewalks for about 4 hours Saturday and about 4 hours Sunday. I also took my kids out sledding.

Lots of the kids too young to shovel were out sledding. The older kids were nowhere to be seen.

Older kids are hanging out unsupervised in the summer, so overprotective parents are not the cause.

Without a regular chance of snow-related income, people just don't think about making money shoveling snow. Looking for any opportunity to make money is not part of the culture.

ERIC writes:

Just like in other industries, technology allows machines to price unskilled labor out of the market.

I agree that it has moved to individuals with pick-up trucks and a mounted plow on front -- think "Mr. Plow"! It would be fast and efficient and I doubt they'd be more than $1500. The same "landscaping" person/company will also try and get your summer lawn business too (notice they won't be using push mowers).

I agree that certain kids are lazy and rich too. Most people willing to work for less would likely not live close or have trouble commuting. The trust issues should be easy to overcome for example: shovel first and pay later or "first one is free" if you really want the work. To me this is a secondary and petty explanation though.

Sam writes:

Just thinking about all the $$ I missed out on as a kid...$30 bucks for a driveway!

Growing up in the the Adirondacks we used to shovel the elderly neighbors driveway for free when it snowed. Which seemed liked everyday.

I would agree this varies based on characteristics from place to place.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan's implication makes perfect sense: We need more unskilled illegal immigrants living full time in America so that his driveway won't go unshoveled for a couple of days during the Snowstorm of the Century.

JKB writes:

You live in the DC area. The kids are probably fearful of getting beat up by union thugs. The homeowner should be fearful of the fines and charges for not paying payroll taxes. Not to mention the cost of worker's comp claims. All in all, safer from a government harassment perspective to contract a licensed service or do it yourself.

Or the kids could just be of the attitude that they aren't going to buy in to the capitalist scam of working for pay. Teacher says only bad people do that.

BPGinNYC writes:

Haha! Sailer Rocks!

My 69 year old mom had 20+ inches out on Long Island. 3 hispanic gentlemen cleared her (rather small - 300sq ft) driveway for 40 bucks. (This is near the community where the Ecuadorian was murdered last year by some no-good punks.) According to her, they did the bare minimum...

When I was a kid I did my drive and walks (maybe 1200 sq ft) and then hit the neighbor's. Prices were per drive, not hourly. (It's all about incentives, no?) $20 bucks was about right. Not to mention I mowed lawns and raked leaves in the fall... This was in the 70s and early 80s.

Today, if I had kids I'd get their lazy-a$$es out of the house to do it! Hmmm, maybe the Wii will come out with a snow-shoveling game for Xmas...

Frankly, many of the men I see around NYC could use a few blisters...

MOswingvoter writes:

We live in Kansas City, Missouri, a city of half a million residents who all seem to prefer living in a small town, in what passes for an urban neighborhood here. Two blocks away is the demarcation line of a "bad" neighborhood, but the neighborhoods here . For snow removal, leaf removal and mowing, it is easy to find assorted nonresidents wandering up and down the block in all seasons looking for yardwork. These are almost always adult males, of varying races and ethnicities, but never neighborhood children. They work for next to nothing ($5-10 for 35 ft of sidewalk or a 200-300 sq. ft. yard) and are often not terribly trustworthy. Although we call them "crackheads," there's no need for the pejorative because I have no idea if they are sober or not, and we do like having them around to perform the labor we'd rather not perform ourselves. If the transaction is not a model of economic efficiency, it's pretty darn close.

MOswingvoter writes:

*but the neighborhoods here tend to vary in character block by block.

Joe Cushing writes:

All this talk of snow blowers, please. If it snows less than 4 inches, it's faster to use a shovel. Maybe a leaf blower would be easier than a shovel for light snow less than an inch or so--if it is cold dry snow. After the snow banks would get to about 5 feet in Ishpeming MI, I would still hand shovel the drive in light snow over to the edges, then I would snow blow the snow up onto the banks. Before the banks hit 5 feet, I would just hand shovel all light snow. The snow blower was a big help in all the 10" to 14" snows we got every two weeks though, but most places in the country don't get those kinds of snow.

Teri writes:

Here in St. Louis MO, we just got 4 inches of snow. The schools of course were out, so my 5, 9, and 13 year old got out and started shoveling driveways (8 of them). The wonderful thing about my children is that they do this for the elderly and widowed neighbors on our block because it is the Christian thing to do. They do not expect to be paid. Often someone will drop an envelope with cash or a McDonald's gift card in our mail slot, but this is always a pleasent surprise. The 9 year old has a mowing business that he does get paid for, but will often be seen mowing a neighbors front yard just because it needs it! There are some hard working, loving children still out there. Thank God for them!!

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