Sep 29, 2010
Sep 06, 2010
It is immoral to take an adult’s full-time labor and pay that adult less than a living wage. It is immoral, and it should be illegal.
Given that premise, what should we do? In our previous post on this issue, we noted that the Living Wage Calculator at Pennsylvania State University1 provides a living wage (LW) for a variety of households throughout the 50 states and D.C. What a single-person household requires for an LW is obviously going to be less than a household containing two adults and two children. Furthermore, a four-person family living in rural Vermont is going to require a lower LW ($25.38 in my county) than one living in midtown Manhattan ($30.30).
Geographic variation may be taken into account in establishing an LW without fearing everyone will move to regions where a higher one is available. There are simply too many other factors involved. However, to set an LW on the basis of household size is to risk both employers and employees attemping to “game the system” to their advantage. Just as the current federal minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) is a one-size-fits-all figure, so should the estabishment of an LW. The question is, what level do we set it at? My recommendation is to set it at the level provided by the Living Wage Calculator for a household with one adult and one child.
This is something of a compromise. I grew up in the classic American family, where one breadwinner supported himself, a spouse, and two children. The average family size still hovers around that figure. From a social policy perspective, we can argue that the LW should encourage this size of a family unit. Practically speaking, however, we can never hope to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to over $25 per hour, at least until we can demonstrate the feasibility—and desirability—of a significant, if lesser, increase.
In the real world today, most intact households contain two working adults. If we set the minimum wage at a level sufficent to support one adult and one child, we may have a reachable goal which is still a desirable one from a social policy perspective. In my rural Vermont setting, this means raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $15.47. As the people at Pennsylvania State University say, this figure supports “a minimum estimate of the cost of living for low wage families.” No frills here. No European vacations, and little left over for college or retirement nest eggs. This is still bare bones living and still it is over twice what we require employers to pay their full-time workers today. And if that is not a national disgrace on par with waging endless war for the sole purpose of enriching a handful of multibillionaires, I don’t know what is.
The very idea, of course, will set up a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. It will be attacked as the last socialist nail in the coffin of American freedom and capitalism. It will be hooted down as pie in the sky. However, others, more thoughtful and aware of the extent of the peril we face if we maintain the status quo, will begin to take up this cause (and you will hear about them in this column).
Now it is time to turn our attention to the other great change we must bring about—guaranteed employment for all. And with that new civil right will come new civil responsibilities. More about that in our next posting.
1 Living Wage Calculator, from Pennsylvania State University, accessed September 6, 2010.
Sep 04, 2010
Another respected voice has been raised in opposition to the growing income inequality in our country.1 On the eve of another disappointing jobs report, when the official unemployment rate rose another tenth of a percent (to 9.6), former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich warns that “None of the standard [economic] booster rockets are working,” not low interest rates, cheap money, the stimulus, or tax credits for new hires.
The real problem, says Reich, is “the structure of the economy.” Consumers have run out of buying power, having seen flat wage increases since the exalted Reagan Revolution: “The median male worker earns less today, adjusted for inflation, than he did 30 years ago.” They can only make a car, a handbag, a basket of apples, so cheap, and you will still not be in a position to buy them if you are earning at a 1980 level, you have maxed out your charge cards, and your house, which you borrowed on during the years they convinced you its value would never decrease, is now underwater.
Meanwhile, no power on earth seems capable of slowing the transfer of wealth in the U.S. from the poor and middle class to the super-rich top one percent, who have gone from earning 9 percent of the nation’s total income in the late 1970s to 23.5 percent in 2007. Yes, that is one percent of the population earning nearly a quarter of all national income.
Reich takes his lesson from the Great Depression and its aftermath: “[T]here is only one way back to full recovery: through more widely shared prosperity.” In other words, through a redistribution of wealth, the sort of thing made possible in the 30s and 40s by the New Deal programs, a healthy labor movement, the G.I. Bill, and social legislation that attacked inequities in civil and voting rights. However, most of these and other such programs are still in place, and yet our wealth continues to flow up to the very few, abetted by a bought-and-paid-for political establishment.
The problem with Reich is that his recipes for relief seem paltry and all-too-easily belittled, besieged, and dismissed in the present political climate: Increasing the income tax credit, raising the ceiling on Social Security contributions, extending educational opportunities at both ends of the school career, compensating the underemployed with something he calls “earnings insurance.”
Like the stimulus and other measures floated to little or no effect so far, these ideas seem doomed to failure. In my view, we need a recall to democracy, where all for one and one for all is recognized as the only way for all to thrive.
A two-plank platform can get us there: 1) Guaranteed employment at 2) a living wage. Next time, I will get back to what I think that living wage should be.
See also two enlightened columns2,3 from yesterday’s Huffington Post.
1 How to End the Great Recession, by Robert Reich, from the NY Times, September 2, 2010, accessed September 3, 2010.
2 Neo-Progressives, by Lawrence Lessig, from the Huffington Post, September 3, 2010, accessed September 4, 2010.
3 Why the Big Lie about the Job Crisis?, by Les Leopold, from the Huffington Post, September 3, 2010, accessed September 4, 2010.
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