The Forgotten

“Poverty” was not represented in the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama. As I watched and listened, I realized the address is not intended to speak to all Americans but just a select few. There were gun supporters, gun opponents, CEOs and many more in attendance when the President gave his speech, but not one person represented the 50 million Americans who live in poverty. I did not see one bag lady or street person rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful.

There were no panhandlers, or squeegee men chatting with politicians or celebrities. There was no one shabbily dressed or smelling of urine sitting in the chamber and nobody appeared to be someone who may be poor or living in poverty.

The poor of America, like the poor around the world, are the forgotten, they have become new untouchables of society. We see them begging for food and money on the side of interstates. We see them on the subway day after day riding back and forth from one stop to another, waiting out their time on earth, forgotten and discarded like so many things in American life.

living-wage: The forgottenThe call for an increase to the minimum wage to $9.00 an hour is an admirable move by Mr. Obama. In 1967, when I first started working, the minimum wage was $2.00 an hour. I am now 61 and the minimum wage was last raised to the current $7.25 in 2009. According to the Oregon State study on the history of the minimum wage the $2.00 an hour I was making in 1968 was actually worth in real dollars $10.51 an hour.

A person earning minimum wage in the United States at the current rate of $7.25 an hour, or $14,500.00 for the year, falls below the current poverty level of $15,200 for two people. When you compare the American minimum wage to other industrialised nations, America’s wage tops only that of China with Australia leading the way at $17.00 an hour.

Opposition to a minimum wage increase led by the likes of freshman Senator Ted Cruz and others in the Republican party believe government can’t create jobs and that the minimum wage should be eliminated. They believe free markets will control themselves and people will not work for a wage that is below their needs.

This thinking is not just wrong; it is unfounded. In every instance where companies were allowed to regulate the wages they pay employees the employees make less than they would under different circumstances.   This is very evident in the states that have enacted right to work laws.  The states that have unions and contracts have a standard of living that is higher than in the states with right to work laws. The correlation does not stop there. The States that have right to work laws also are the leading states in the percentage of people living at or below poverty levels. Poverty rates are higher in states with “right to work” laws (15.3 percent overall and 21.5 percent for children), compared with poverty rates of 13.1 percent overall and 18.1 percent for children in states without these laws.

Those who, like Cruz, believe companies will have a greater burden if the minimum wage is raised fail to tell the American public that corporate profits are at an all-time high. Employers can pay better wages and some do, but many corporations are sitting on huge stockpiles of money even as American worker productivity has hit all time highs. Currently the median wage in America is $50,000 if that would have kept up with inflation since 1970 that figure would be close to $92,000.

I would like one Senator to try to live on $7.25 an hour and feel what it’s like for almost 60 million people who struggle every day to exist. The problem as I see it is the same as it was when Richard Nixon vetoed  an increase to the minimum wage from $2.00 to $2.20 citing that the raise would be a whopping 37.5% increase.

The party of the 1% cite studies that state the minimum wage does not affect the state of poverty and they are correct. One reason for the continued rise in the number of people living in poverty is that the raises in the minimum wage are not tied to inflation and by the time the Congress gets around to even thinking about the working poor the minimum wage  is so far behind the rate of inflation the increase is inconsequential. That is why President Obama has suggested the minimum wage should be tied to the rate of inflation and increased automatically as inflation raises.

The social problems associated with poverty — teen pregnancy, school drop-outs, crime, substance abuse and spousal abuse/domestic violence — and the aggregate cost to taxpayers — far outpaces the cost of raising the wage of the American poor. As the saying goes, you can pay me now or you can pay me later. The American people, who are among the hardest working people on the planet, deserve better than just a minimum wage; they deserve a guaranteed living wage, not a wage of bare existence, because people living on a minimum wage are not living the ‘American dream’, they merely exist one day at a time…with very little hope.