Inequality in the US: (3) Poor Pay

The poor are not poor because of any weakness of character or racial makeup, which is one of the major fantasies that Republican conservatives promote in order to avoid addressing the real issue. The poor are poor because they are not paid enough, and because lots of families lost everything after the 2008 crash (compliments of Wall Street criminals), and there is simply not enough work available, all of which are worsened by Republican policies.

This is not to deny that there are differences in intelligence and abilities between people, and that those who are not the brightest light on the tree will not be our highest earners. In all of economic history, the bottom 50% have owned essentially no wealth. The social goal should not be to give them wealth, but to make it impossible for their income to leave them destitute. They deserve to be fairly paid for their work, and they are not.

The poor are poor because
they are not paid enough.

A primary reason we are willing to pay paltry, inadequate wages is that our culture does not properly value work. This is more than a little ironic in light of frequent Republican pronouncements that the failure of the poor to embrace the dignity of work is what creates poverty. It would seem that somewhere along the line they would realize that there is no dignity in being exploited by cheapskate pay that leaves you in poverty, leaving aside the fact that zero job availability isn’t exactly dignified either.

Living Wage is one of the most important economic issues today. Living Wage means full time wages adequate to provide all necessities, but not luxuries. The topic is being almost totally ignored in political debate. Instead, Congress and state legislatures endlessly debate a minimum wage that is at least 250% inadequate to provide basic essentials. The millions of people who are paid only minimum wage must have multiple jobs, either themselves or within their families, if they are to stay off welfare roles and leave behind their lives of quiet desperation, which they all want to do.

There is no dignity in poverty pay.

Dignity of work, did you say, you Congressional freeloader who works the equivalent of two or three days a week, yet has income in the top 6%, subsidized health care insurance, and will receive equivalent lifetime retirement pay even after just a few years? You will never have to make the sorts of agonizing decisions the poor make every day: food, or medicine; shoes for the children or carfare.

We tend to believe that only work that requires advanced education and special skills should be paid well. We believe that poverty wages are adequate for common jobs such as cleaning and food service, not to mention agricultural field work. But it’s easy enough to understand the true value of such jobs when there is no one available to do them. This happened when the North Carolina legislature managed to scare most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans out of the state with despicable new laws, after which farmers had no way to harvest crops, which rotted in the fields.

I have stated several times that the hospital is an excellent place to observe the true value of work, because there every job is crucial and failures so mundane as inadequate cleaning literally endanger lives. Moreover, we fail to understand that even such primary work requires certain skills, one of which is the ability to perform the work on a continuous basis in spite of how uninspiring it can be.

Living Wage would remove
everyone with a job
from welfare rolls.

Taking only those who presently have such ordinary jobs, consider what would happen if every working person earned enough through full time work to provide for all of the basic elements of living: shelter, clothing, good food, medical care, retirement. The result would be that more money would be circulated in the economy because these people could afford all of the necessities, and even an occasional minor luxury that they can’t afford now. This not only makes them taxpayers, rather than welfare recipients, but it creates additional jobs to satisfy the added commercial market they generate. Since this cohort is so large—half the population—the effect could be substantial.

Enactment of a fair Living Wage law would go a long way toward lessening the record inequality we are experiencing. There is such a huge difference between the $10/hr minimum wage Congress is considering and the actual wage needed—in the neighborhood of $25/hr—that it would take time for the country to adjust. Probably, Living Wage would best be instituted over several years for that reason.

Australia has had great success with the Living Wage laws they have had in place for over a century, and there is no reason such laws in the US would be any less successful. Australians are pleased with their incomes, and scornful of visitors from the US who want to tip them. Rather like tipping your dentist. Yet some Republicans think the current federal minimum of $2.13 for food servers is adequate, since tips are presumed to bring their pay up to the $7.25 minimum.

There are additional ways to lessen unemployment, including economic stimulus to support the unemployed, who will spend every penny of it, thus putting more cash in circulation. Government programs similar to those that helped drag the economy out of the Depression would also help. One of the most obvious is the restoration of our dangerously aging infrastructure—roadways, bridges, public buildings, communications systems, sewers, the electric grid—that suffer from decades of deferred maintenance and are sometimes a century old. Work that must be done; workers who need work. Seems like a no-brainer. Another is planting of trees and other plants nationwide, which has multiple benefits, including improved environment, economic enhancement, and appearance. We still have many excellent works of art that were sponsored by government during the Depression, and there are lots of other ideas.

But until the lower half of our population can earn enough to live decently on with the jobs they already have, we have not addressed inequality.

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