Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Decent Pay for All
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It's called "making a living." You know, that sometimes pleasant, sometimes burdensome, but usually essential chore of working regularly at a task that profits your employer and provides useful goods and services to others.

Making a living. Well, suppose your part of the deal is $5.15 an hour and suppose you managed to draw that pay full-time - for 40 hours every week through the entire year. Your reward would be just slightly over $10,500. That's $206 a week or about $900 a month, minus taxes and other deductions.

You'd be living, all right, but according to the standards of the federal government and surely anyone else, you'd obviously be living in poverty. Yet the government's legal minimum wage has remained at $5.15 an hour since 1997.

Congress has repeatedly refused to raise the rate, despite the law - the Fair Labor Standards Act - which says the minimum should be high enough to guarantee "a standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being," and despite polls showing overwhelming public support for a raise.

As a consequence of Congress' inaction, the 14 million working Americans who are paid at or just below or just above the minimum are instead barely surviving. They are indeed the working poor.

Some members of Congress, principally Democrats, have tried to help them, each year proposing bills that would raise the rate, but they have been heavily outnumbered. The most recent bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, would raise the rate by $1.85 in steps over the next three years to $7 an hour.

By any measure, the Democrats' proposed raises would be pitifully inadequate. But it's undoubtedly the most that can be attempted, given the strong opposition to any increase by President Bush and Congress' Republican majority.

The opponents argue that an increase 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 growth in jobs has been prompted in large part by the increased spending of those whose pay has gone up. Like all low-paid workers, they must spend virtually every cent they earn, thus raising the overall demand for goods and services and for 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 of dollars in aid to the families.

There's no doubt employers are shifting a significant part of their labor costs to the public, and no doubt that welfare costs could be substantially reduced if the minimum wage they had to pay were raised to a decent level.

More than that, 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?

Opponents of a minimum wage increase often stress that many who are paid the minimum are teenagers from middle-income families and others who have little work experience and few work skills. Many do fit that description, but most minimum wage workers do not. Most are over 18 and from decidedly low-income families. They need the work in order to survive.

More than one-third of the workers are the main or sole support of their families. Almost two-thirds are women. Many 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 even find full-time jobs 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 11 states have done so, and none have a rate much above $7 an hour. More than 100 cities and counties and the District of Columbia have adopted "living wage" ordinances setting minimums as high as $10, but with the exception of two cities, they only cover employers doing business with the local government.

More, much more, needs to 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.

Copyright Dick Meister