There’s nary a member of Congress’ Republican majority who hasn’t spoken with great sympathy about the poor folks who were the principal victims of Hurricane Katrina, or who hasn’t expressed sympathy for the millions of other Americans who suffer in poverty. But provide real, lasting help to those people? Are you kidding?
The latest example of the majority’s refusal to put its noble words into effective action came recently when Congress voted down a bill to raise the federal minimum wage that’s stood at a poverty-level $5.15 an hour since 1997. The raise proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and others in the Democratic minority would have increased the rate to $6.25 over the next 18 months, but even that meager raise was too much for the hypocritical GOP majority.
Imagine trying to live on pay of $5.15 an hour. Even those who manage to work full time make just slightly over $10,500 a year — $206 a week or about $900 a month, minus taxes and other deductions. That’s well below the official poverty level and in obvious violation of the law – the Fair Labor Standards Act – which says the minimum wage should be high enough to guarantee “a standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being.”
As a consequence of Congress’ refusal to raise the minimum, the 15 million working Americans who are paid at or just below or just above the minimum are instead barely surviving.
Republicans trotted out their usual lame argument that any increase in the minimum would harm the working poor because it would force employers to eliminate jobs.
Actually, however, just the opposite has occurred after every one of the 19 times the minimum has been raised since it was initially set at 25 cents an hour in 1938. The job growth has been prompted largely by the increased spending of those whose pay has gone up. Like all low-wage workers, they must spend virtually every cent they earn, thus raising the overall demand for goods and services and the hiring of new employees to help provide them.
Taxpayers are providing billions of dollars in subsidies to the employers of minimum wage workers, since much of the money paid out in public assistance goes to families whose working members do not earn enough to be self-supporting. Private charities provide additional millions in aid.
There’s no doubt employers are shifting a significant part of their labor costs to the general public, and no doubt that welfare costs could be reduced substantially if the minimum wage they had to pay was raised to a decent level.
Think of the benefits to society generally, as well as to the workers, if those who now must depend on food stamps, housing allowances and other government assistance could make it on their own. And is there any better way to attack the root causes of crime and other destructive behavior than to raise the pay of the poorest and neediest members of society?
Employers would benefit as well. Studies show what should be obvious: That raising workers’ pay raises workers’ morale and, with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and recruiting and training costs.
Opponents of an increase argued that many who are paid the minimum are teenagers from middle-income families and others who have little work experience and few work skills. About one-fourth fit that description, but the other minimum wage workers are over 18 and from decidedly low-income families.
More than one-third are the main or sole support of the family. Almost two-thirds are women, including some 750,000 single mothers. More than one-third are African American, Latino or Asian. Many are recently arrived immigrants. Most work in the service and retail fields or in agriculture. Many can’t find full-time jobs even at the bare minimum. Only a few belong to unions or have any other protection aside from the law.
The law allows states and local governments to adopt minimum wage rates higher than the federal rate, but only 16 states have done so, and none have a rate much above $7 an hour. More than 130 cities and counties and the District of Columbia have adopted “living wage” ordinances setting minimums as high as $11, but they generally cover only employers doing business with the local government.
Much, much more must be done if we are to meet the basic needs of the millions of Americans who perform so many of society’s vital tasks for less than a living wage. The need to provide them a decent living is at least as urgent as the need to rebuild the communities ravaged by Katrina and other recent hurricanes.
Copyright (c) 2005 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.
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