“In the wealthiest nation on Earth,” President Barack Obama declared in his State of the Union speech, “no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”
Right! Way to go! Not only does his call to raise America’s minimum wage put some real pop in populism, but it could finally start putting some ethics back in our country’s much-celebrated (but rarely honored) “work ethic.” Kudos to Obama for putting good economics and good morals together — and for putting this long overdue increase on the front burner.
But then came the number: $9 an hour. Excuse me, Mr. President, but if you’re going to bother making the fight, why start out with a number so low that many minimum-wage employees would still “have to live in poverty”?
About 60 percent of America’s lowest-paid workers are women, including single moms struggling awfully hard to make ends meet. Yet, at your $9-an-hour level, a single woman with two children, would, in fact, be paid a poverty wage. And, since you would slowly phase in the increase, she wouldn’t even be paid that until nearly two years from now.
Yes, 9 bucks is a $1.75 better than the current low wage of high misery, but it doesn’t even elevate the buying power of our nation’s wage floor back to where it was in 1968. Nor, by the way, does it match the $9.50-level you pledged to push in 2008 when you were running for president.
This is not merely about extending a badly needed helping hand to people struggling to work their way out of poverty, but it’s also about enabling them to give a bottom-up jolt of new energy to our economy, which it desperately needs.
Ironically, while super-rich corporations are hoarding trillions of dollars in offshore accounts, refusing to invest in our nation, minimum-wage workers will invest every extra dollar they get in America — spending it right where they live on clothing, food, transportation, health care and other needs.
A 2011 Federal Reserve study found that a $1 hike in the minimum wage produces an additional $2,800 a year in spending by each of those households — so this is no time to shortchange these workers.
Yes, I know that congressional Republicans’ idea of governing is, first, to snap a sharp “No,” and only then ask what the proposal is. So, at the direction of corporate lobbyists, they were bleating a loud negative to any wage hike — and when Obama proposed $9, GOP House leader John Boehner jumped on it like a gator on a poodle.
Incredibly, he claimed that raising the wages of our country’s most poorly paid workers would hurt — guess who? — America’s most poorly paid workers! This disingenuous pitting of poor people against themselves is derived from a corporate manufactured political myth that hiking the minimum pay squeezes small-business owners to the breaking point, “forcing” them to fire employees or even go bankrupt. “When you raise the price of employment,” Boehner grumped, “guess what happens: You get less of it.”
Well, guess again, John. That “job killer” fable has been debunked again and again by real-world experience. Over decades, the pay floor has constantly been elevated by Congress, states and cities, and the great preponderance of studies show that it causes little to zero negative impacts on job numbers, but very positive results for employee morale, productivity and turnover. It also tends to generate a nice income boost for — guess who — small businesses, as wage earners spend their increase in pay in the local economy.
Obviously, the major impact of the raise is to lift incomes of about 18 million hardworking people being paid at or near the minimum. This allows them to save enough to make a down payment on a used car or to enroll in a couple of community college classes. Plus, it gives at least a token nod to the essential need of bridging America’s dangerously widening chasm of economic inequality.
The real shame in the Republican leader’s attack is not its flagrant dishonesty, but the raw disdain that it flings at low-wage workers. The hidebound “no’s” in our society — including Boehner, Mitt Romney, the Koch brothers and Wall Street billionaires — see working people in terms of their price tags, not in their value. This dehumanized contempt for the working class not only stains these corporate elitists, but it also holds back America’s phenomenal economic potential — and this contempt of America’s workaday majority is social dynamite.
While those power elites say “no,” the American people overwhelmingly say “yes.” A poll last June found that seven out of 10 of us — including a majority of Republican women (but not men) — favor raising the minimum wage above $10 an hour.
So, Mr. President, this is not a time for meek proposals. Think big, and take it to the people.
— Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker and author of Swim Against The Current: Even A Dead Fish Can Go With The Flow. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @JimHightower, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.