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Reframing the Minimum (Livable) Wage

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A well-known progressive, George Lakoff, has proposed that progressives begin to reclaim the moral high ground we once owned in politics by re-framing our policy positions in moral terms. Here's a suggestion for how the 110th Congress might take a small step in that right direction.

Speaker of the House-elect Pelosi says that in the first 100 hours of a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives she hopes to raise the "minimum" wage to $7.25 an hour. Is that a moral position stated morally?

In 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a family of four is considered to be in poverty if their income is $20,000 a year or lower. This official "absolute poverty line" is defined as "the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; and having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health." If you divide $20,000 a year by the 2,080 hours in a work year, the result tells you that in 2006 a single head of household needs an hourly wage $9.62 an hour to keep a family of four above the officially established absolute poverty line. In other words, a single parent of three could work full time under the proposed new $7.25 an hour minimum wage law and still not earn enough income to meet their family's basic needs. It's not even close. Is that moral?

Today, one quarter of the workforce, 50 million people, toil away their lives for $5.25, $6.50, $7.75 with no or few benefits. There is no American Dream in many of their futures. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are over four million single-parents and their related children living below the poverty line in 2005. $9.62 an hour is the precise wage rate that official government statistics tell us is the dividing line between government-sanctioned indentured servitude and economic freedom for these millions of real Americans and that is why $9.62 an hour is precise point at which a minimum wage increase will start to sound "moral" to me.

Of course, the $20,000 standard on which this dividing line has been determined is ridiculously, unrealistically low. If we used European countries standard of 60% of national median income to define "poverty" instead, the U.S. poverty income for a family of four today would be $39,055. Which side of the Atlantic has the more moral standard? Perhaps the Democratic Congress could instruct HHS to raise our poverty standard so that we can begin using "actual poverty" or "relative poverty" like most other developed countries from here forward as one way to promote greater income equity not income disparities in our country. That's one of the foundational progressive moral values behind all this isn't it, equity?

We're nowhere in the vicinity of equity. Over the past generation, the richest folks in America have had an incredibly successful run at avoiding taxes, gutting the U.S. Treasury and calling it "business," taking our tax dollars and jobs offshore while sticking working folks and our kids with an unmanageable load of their bad debts. Now, the richest one percent, whose pay and profits are at record levels, are sitting on something like ninety percent of the nation's wealth and yet have the unmitigated gall to oppose raising the minimum wage on the unfounded grounds that a minimum wage increase will put America out of business. Well, I'll stand my ground with Bishop Desmond Tutu who in opposing apartheid in South Africa said, "I don't want your table scraps. I want my full plates of rights" and that's why my recommended response to all those poor rich folks whose bank accounts are filled to the brim with our nation's treasure is, "Yeah and maybe we should have kept those plantations, too."

The "minimum" wage is exactly that-the bare minimum-half the wage it takes to stay out of poverty even when the poverty rate is artificially set at half of what it really takes to stay out of poverty. It's the least, the lowest, the smallest, the most miniscule pay for some of the hardest labors. So, is an hourly wage still inadequate to supply a worker's basic needs how the 110th Congress will repay them for their long-suffering service to their country? That wouldn't be right because a nation's character is judged by how it treats its neediest, most vulnerable people and America prizes its workers, especially those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. That wouldn't be right because the moral value that should underlie the official wage rate for the United States of America is that businesses should pay workers what they need to provide a family of four with the bare essentials necessary to sustain life. The alternative is slavery and slavery is wrong.

Democrats should stand for ending economic apartheid in America. That is why they should oppose a "minimum" wage increase and enact a "livable" wage. This moral language already in wide circulation sums up the core values that underlie progressives' approach to workers rights to fair pay. "Livable" wage is popular people's phrase that should frame the debate and be on the title of the bill to pay workers what they justly earn day in and day.

The old legislative debate frame on minimum wage, shaped by the Republicans, was to try and trade elimination of the inheritance tax for a minimum wage increase. That's ridiculous . These things have nothing to do with each other. It was a failed (thankfully) attempt at old-fashioned horse-trading and now that Democrats control the agenda, I hope they'll toss that nonsense overboard! I propose the following alternative trade-off. Republicans can support a livable wage bill and keep $31.2 billion in tax cuts and only $31.2 billion or fight it and lose them, too. Here's a simple rationale for this suggestion. 50 million workers working 2,080 hours per year at an average increased wage of $2 an hour paying taxes at a rate of 15% will net the U.S. government $31.2 billion in new tax revenue.

Oh and please don't forget to index the new livable wage to inflation because if you don't, it won't be livable for long.

 

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Scott Beckman lives in Santa Fe, NM.

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