Thursday, June 22, 2006

Congressional Pay Raises Trump Stagnant Minimum Wage

In each of the following years, Congressmen gave themselves a pay raise:

1998 – $3100

2000 – $4600

2001 – $3800

2002 – $4900

2003 – $4700

2004 – $3400

2005 – $3100

2006 – $3300

The same Congressmen who have had no problem taking an automatic pay increase every year for seven consecutive years have also had no problem in blocking an increase in the minimum wage – for nine years running. Shameless hypocrites!

Purchasing power of the federal minimum wage, currently $5.15 an hour, is the lowest it’s been in more than half a century. Shameful, that people who work for a living in the world’s richest country can’t make a living.

Critics of a higher minimum wage, mostly well-heeled Republicans and near-sighted Libertarians, argue that if someone isn’t satisfied with a low-paying job, they need only go get a better one. Unfortunately, it’s not always quite that simple. Hidden factors come into play.

These same critics also argue that raising the minimum wage would result in the loss of many minimum-wage jobs. It’s a specious argument. If people lost their jobs solely on the basis of pay increases, wouldn’t there be an increasing number of unemployed Congressmen? Of corporate CEOs? Of people at all levels of corporate and government hierarchy?

People of privilege—and here I’m talking about people who had the good fortune to have loving, nurturing, educated parents, good role models, unfettered access to education, an unlimited number of opportunities, and more than a few lucky breaks—have no true understanding of what it means to be marginalized.

They don’t understand (or, if they do, they don’t acknowledge) how difficult it can be for someone who was born into a cycle of poverty to escape that poverty. Those who lack job skills and financial resources, and have no way of acquiring either, tend to remain mired in poverty. For them, poverty is a prison without exits. All too often, poverty is an inherited condition that passes from one generation to the next.

Often, minimum wage jobs come without healthcare benefits, meaning that Public Health and Human Services agencies often subsidize healthcare for minimum-wage earners, which is tantamount to taxpayers subsidizing the minimum-wage-paying employer’s bottom line. The same can be said for food and housing programs, too.

Lacking discretionary income, wage slaves at the low end of the economic ladder find that ordinary life events have disastrous consequences. A car breakdown, work missed because of illness or injury, or any number of other unplanned expenses or work interruptions can have catastrophic repercussions, further disenfranchising the already disenfranchised.

Taking time off work to look for a better-paying job is rarely an option. When income is already stretched to the limits and ends still don’t meet, every missed work hour is missed income, the effects of which usually take weeks – if not months – to overcome. You can’t possibly get ahead if you can’t get caught up.

Below-poverty wages invite increased crime and violence, compound problems associated with illicit drugs, contribute to slumification and neighborhood blight, add to the ranks of the homeless, and drive up costs of healthcare and other social services.

Full-time workers and part-time workers who would otherwise be available for full-time work deserve better than starvation wages. They deserve the dignity of a living wage.

The U.S., once a bastion of democratic principles, economic opportunities, social progress and capitalist ideals, has systematically stacked the deck in favor of the wealthy, the politically powerful. In its quest for global dominance, America has ceded the moral high ground, surrendered its ethics, forfeited its integrity and sacrificed the respect of its allies – all in service to its new highest ideal, greed.

America can – and must – do better in the way it treats the least of its citizens. It starts with a minimum wage sufficiently high enough to lift minimum-wage employees out of poverty. In a land of plenty there is enough to go around.

When the tides of fortune come rushing in, they should lift all the boats in the harbor, not just the yachts.