- By Marya HannunMarya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.
A day after President Obama announced that he will give back five percent of his salary this year in solidarity with federal workers facing furloughs, skimming $20,000 from his $400,000 annual wage, other U.S. political figures are following suit. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to donate five percent of his salary to charity. Attorney General Eric Holder, meanwhile, was a bit more tepid, offering to give back a portion of his salary if the Department of Justice faces furloughs.
While Obama — who himself was following in the footsteps of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — may be at the forefront of the current trend in the United States, he’s hardly the first world leader to stomach a self-imposed pay reduction during tough economic times, and his voluntary cutback is certainly not the most dramatic.
In 2010, for instance, British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to trim his earnings by £7,500 (roughly $11,400) when his coalition took over. While this also amounted to about five percent of his salary — that salary was significantly lower than Obama’s at £150,000 (around $230,000). And rather than a one-off pay cut, Cameron’s belt-tightening was part of a long-term, government-wide move toward austerity.
Two years later, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, accepted a 36-percent cut in annual income, which seems pretty drastic until you consider that the reduction still left him earning a comfortable $1.7 million a year. While the Singaporean government has long held the belief that inflated salaries curb corruption and draw talented people to public service, they ultimately caved to pressure from voters and adjusted wages for all of the country’s top leaders. Even with the pay cut, however, the prime minister remains the highest-paid elected head of state.
Still, there’s no more radical example of personal sacrifice among world leaders than José Mujica, the notoriously low-maintenance president of Uruguay, who donates 90 percent of the roughly $144,000 he earns a year to charity. Mujica shuns the typical presidential perks, living on a farm with his wife and tending the land themselves. Barack and Michelle might not be up for that lifestyle. But as far as symbolic gestures go, it definitely makes the president’s five-percent cut look a bit paltry.