The Economics of Snow Shoveling

As a result of this weekend’s massive snowstorm in the Washington, DC area, economist Bryan Caplan wonders why he couldn’t find anyone to help shovel all that snow:

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?…

I had the same thought. I did in fact hire a teenager to help me with the shoveling, but I only found him because he was the son of a friend. Interestingly, I paid exactly the $30 Bryan specified (but he worked for about 90 minutes, and thus got less money than Bryan thinks the market might bear).

Why the paucity of snow-shoveling labor in the DC area? Bryan’s explanations B and C probably play a role. But the really important factor is that DC is a warm-weather area where massive snowstorms are extremely rare. In cold-weather states, middle-class teenagers do often sell their shoveling services when a big snowstorm happens. I know because I did it myself when I was in high school in the late 80s and early 90s, in an area at least as affluent as where Bryan lives. In a warm-weather area, few teenagers develop shoveling skills and there is little opportunity for a teen driveway-shoveling market to develop. Moreover, teens in cold-weather areas can develop relationships with particular neighbors who regularly need snow-shoveling help (e.g. – I routinely shoveled the walkway of an elderly neighbor who couldn’t physically do the job herself). It’s hard to develop an ongoing “repeat player” relationship if the neighbors only need shoveling assistance once every several years.