Friday, December 15, 2006

On the Minimum Wage

Here are a couple of blurbs from an article about proposed legislation to raise the minimum wage:

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...The minimum wage hike is something Democrats have put at the top of their agenda when the next Congress convenes in January. It would raise wages for an estimated 6.5 million workers or 4 percent of the work force — janitors, waitstaff, security guards, cashiers and store clerks — according to the Economic Policy Institute...

...Adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage of $5.15 is at its lowest level since 1955. By 2009, a $7.25 minimum wage would have the spending power of $6.75 today, Bernstein calculated using Congressional Budget Office projections...

...Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia will have 2007 minimum wages above the federal level. The highest minimum wage in the nation is Washington state's $7.63 an hour, which is set to increase to $7.94 on Jan. 1. A minimum wage worker in the state working full time would make $16,515 a year before taxes. The federal poverty threshold for a family of three is $16,600...

...One-quarter of hourly workers who make minimum wage are teenagers, but about half are older than 25, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics....

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The 6.5 million workers figure is a bit misleading, because that only counts the workers whose states allow employers to pay only the federally mandated minimum wage. As you can see from the article, roughly half of the states have a higher minimum wage, but few of those come anywhere near the $8.00 an hour needed to at least equal the poverty line - much less get above it. So the real number of people making sub-living wages is probably about double the official figure. Think about it - according to the article, in real terms, after inflation, minimum and near-minimum wage workers are making only about what they made in 1955, relatively speaking. In 1955 a gallon of gasoline would cost about twenty cents. Now it costs two to three dollars, depending upon where you live. What you could buy in 1960 for about a dollar costs ten to twenty dollars today. Minimum wage should represent a reasonably fair pay for a day's work. In today's economy, it's nothing of the kind.

You must also keep in mind that most "waitstaff" can legally be paid wages far below the minimum, because the restaurant lobby has worked hard to keep from paying them a living wage, piously claiming that they get "tips" equal or greater than the difference. I know plenty of "waitstaff" and it just isn't so for 90+% of them. It's just a way for the restauranteurs to avoid paying more payroll taxes.

The Torah commands us to deal justly with employees - and that means we must pay them a living wage. Of course, what is a living wage differs wildly depending upon your location and the local cost of living, but at the minimum every Jewish employer should pay all of their employees at least $8.00 per hour - and we all know it should be more like $10.00 to fulfill the Torah commandment to treat employees with dignity. This is not a lot in our present economy, but it's amazing how few employers abide by these figures.

People give a lot of excuses not to raise the minimum wage - most notably that it just hurts "teenagers." But this myth needs to be laid to rest - only about one quarter of all minimum wage workers are teenagers and the vast majority are adults over the age of 25 who likely have children and/or grandchildren to support.

And how can we make it so that employers can afford to pay their employees decent wages? Two words - buy local. Two more words - buy American. It's not rocket science, class. Sending money away to multi-national corporations, their overseas suppliers, mega-retailers and manufacturers whose plants are in foreign countries takes money away from your local businesses and American manufacturers. We need to re-think the way we do business in this country, because the false "more-is-better" and "economy of scale" paradigm that has been sold to us by the robber barons enriches them at the expense of us, the ordinary Americans, and that needs to stop.

Self-sufficiency is not bad, it's good - good for your community and good for the country. Think about it. A few changes in your shopping habits can make a big difference. Big changes can help start a tidal wave of change. Cheapest is not always best, class. Instead, cheapest is a domino in a long chain of unintended consequences that ends up making you poorer, not better off.

It's time to stop pandering to the robber baron CEO's and start looking after our own. We can do this. Long live the Revolution!

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