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The Minimum Wage is a Disgrace, and Raising it Would be a Boon to the Whole Economy

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Cross-posted from Hightower Lowdown

This article co-written by Phillip Frazer

More than 100 million Americans live on less than a minimal family budget

Sometimes, it's useful to state the obvious. Here's a fact, for example, that we all know to be true: America's economy is enormous. It's worth saying that out loud and repeating it to ourselves and others, because today's Powers That Be (economic, political, and media) are wrongly forcing a regime of austerity on our nation. They're insisting that we hoi polloi must downsize our middle-class dreams, claiming that America no longer has the wherewithal to do big things.

Their narrow and pessimistic prescription for our future is not only at odds with the American spirit, but also at odds with the facts. The wealth of this nation is naturally huge and expansive -- thanks to such fundamentals as the sheer size and diversity of our land, the breadth and depth of our natural resources, and especially the can-do attitude of our enterprising and hardworking people. Far from shrinking down, we have the economic strength today to be spreading the middle class and advancing the historic, egalitarian ideals that were planted at America's founding.

In natural terms, our economy is a giant sequoia. Unfortunately, our present corporate and governmental leadership can't seem to grasp one of the basic laws of nature: You can't keep a mighty tree alive (much less have it thrive) by only spritzing the fine leaves at the tippy-top. The fate of the whole tree depends on nurturing the grassroots.

Sadly, in this time of such potential for greatness, we're led by a myopic crew of leaf spritzers. In Washington, on Wall Street, and in the corporate suites, the elites have taken exquisite care of themselves, with the top one percent tripling their share of the nation's wealth since 1980. How did they obtain this phenomenal boost? By siphoning up shares of America's wealth that had been going to the rest of us. Blithely oblivious to the dangerous shriveling of the grassroots, they've increased their take by offshoring our middle-class jobs, slashing American wages and benefits in practically every sector, busting the ability of unions to fight back, deregulating their nefarious corporate and financial operations, dodging their tax obligations, privatizing and gutting public services (from schools to food stamps), and turning our elections into auctions run by and for billionaires.

This massive redistribution of wealth is not an issue of economics, but of basic morality. In plain words, it's robbery -- not only robbing workaday Americans of both their share and their dreams, but also mugging America itself of its unifying ethos. Fair and just behavior -- especially by the powerful -- are requisites for holding so many millions of us together as a free society.

The importance of this founding ethic has been instilled in us by the phrases, stories, and symbols of our culture: The golden rule (Bible), the general welfare (Constitution), the common good (kindergarten), the social contract (New Deal), the land of opportunity (ubiquitous slogan), E pluribus unum (coins, the dollar bill, and the Great Seal), "one nation... with liberty and justice for all" (Pledge of Allegiance).

These and others reiterate and confirm our ethical pledge of trust in each other, our commitment to the notion that we're all in this together. That's the moral glue that defines and binds us as Americans. But each one is now being openly mocked -- cast aside by the rich and powerful as irrelevant to how our economy ought to work... and for whom.

The bare minimum

In this country of unsurpassed wealth, it's an abomination that the power elites are casually tolerating poverty pay as our wage floor. How deplorable that they can actually juxtapose the words "working" and "poor" without blinking, much less blushing... or barfing! Nearly four million Americans are being paid at or below the desiccated federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. For a single mother with two kids, that's $4,000 a year beneath the poverty level. Upwards of 20 million additional Americans are laboring for just a dollar or so above the minimum -- still a sub-poverty wage. Where are the ethics in a "work ethic" that rewards so many with paychecks that deliberately hold them in poverty?

Today's minimum was passed in 2007, and the meager purchasing value it had even then has since been devoured by inflation. Consider the kind of life $7.25 buys. At that rate a full-time worker is taking in only $1,250 a month, before payroll taxes. In most places -- even if you're single with no children -- try stretching that over the basics of rent, utilities, groceries, and gas. Need car repair? Lose your job? What if you get sick? Good luck.

To hide the ugliness, corporate politicos and front groups have draped a thick tapestry of myths, lies, and excuses over the miserly wage. "The only people paid the minimum," goes one of their oldest dodges, "are teenagers working part-time summer jobs for extra cash." Not exactly -- in fact, only 6.4 percent of these low-wage employees are teen part-timers. Contrary to the stereotype, the typical minimum-wage worker is an adult, white woman (including many single moms) whose family relies on her paycheck.

In the last couple of years, the hard-puffing right-wing-osphere has conjured up a new, especially nasty canard to explain away such low pay. Buckle-up for this one: "In America, the poor are rich." Yes, scoff these revisionists, it's not uncommon for poverty-wage families in the US to have an air conditioner. Imagine that! They might also possess kitchen stoves, working TVs, and sometimes even cell phones. Why, poor scavengers in Third World nations couldn't even imagine such luxuries. Plus, notice that a lot of our so-called "victims" of poverty are fat, so it's not like they're starving. If you're not starving, you see, you're not really poor. Thus, they conclude with a smirk, those on minimum wage should count their blessings and shut up.

Besides, they add, if you are struggling to make ends meet on $1,250 a month, it's your fault. The latest fashion among far-right apologists for America's widening income gap is to scold the poor for their poverty. Among the leading voices for this socio-psycho-pop nonsense is radio ranter and multi-millionaire Michael Medved. In a commentary last year, he both asserted the moral superiority of his fellow one-percenters and pounded the poor as victims of nothing but their own worthlessness. The rich, he informed us, are "strivers" whose behavior should be emulated. To reprimand them as greedy, he instructed, is "wrong as a matter of principle," for they have "created wealth and built beautiful lives for their families." So, he concluded, "gratitude is due."

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.

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