June 2004

Niggardly Congress ignores ‘compassionate conservatism’

By David Grant Long

Long ago in a faraway place, I worked at a McDonald's when burgers, fries, shakes and soft drinks were the whole menu, with hamburgers priced at 15 cents, cheeseburgers 19 cents and shakes and Cokes a quarter. There was no Ronald's Playland (no Ronald, for that matter), and not even inside seating, just a few picnic tables outdoors.

I was paid 95 cents an hour for my labors — I actually "flipped burgers," the popular cliché now used to symbolize the bottom feeders of the work force — and that seemed fair, since my needs were modest and my job skills few.

Nowadays, when similar meat sandwiches cost at least a couple bucks, a comparable wage would be $12 or so an hour. Instead, most of these jobs pay about half that, or only what the Fair Labor Standards Act requires. Many jobs in other fields also pay the least their employers can get away with, or what’s known as – ta da — the minimum wage.

The idea of establishing a minimum wage originated in Australia toward the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s. I remember my father talking about working for the WPA for a dollar a day during the height of the Depression, and feeling lucky to have the work. Anyway, in 1938, the United States adopted its first minimum wage of 25 cents an hour, although it applied to less than half the work force.

By 1990, nearly 90 percent of workers were covered by the law and it was raised in several steps to $3.80 after remaining at the same level ($3.35) throughout the Reagan years.

But now in adjusted dollars the minimum wage has fallen way behind what it used to be worth. It was last raised in 1997 to $5.15 and seven years later the minimum wage is still $5.15, even though the costs of life’s essentials — you know, food, rent, gasoline, medical care — are much higher.

During the intervening years, the Republican Congress killed several attempts at modest hikes, offering the traditional arguments that to do so would actually cause workers to be laid off and employers to be reluctant to expand their work forces — even though several studies have shown this didn't happen after the last two increases.

In contrast, members of Congress got pay raises of over $20,000 during the past seven years, or about a year's salary for some of us who aren't clever enough to feed at the public trough.

Yes, the working poor in this country are aptly named, and, apparently, will always be with us as long as the GOP runs the political show. They provide valuable services used by just about all of us, making our hotel beds, cooking our fast food and stocking the shelves of the discount stores where we go for bargains. And then they are rewarded with chump change,

On the food chain of the American labor force, they rank just above illegal immigrants, since citizens still have a few legal protections — i.e., minimum wage and worker's comp laws.

Even when both parents of a struggling young family work full-time at or near the minimum wage, they earn only enough to live in poverty.

Figure it out: A full-time job means working about 2,000 hours a year. (That's with two weeks off for non-essentials like sick days and vacation, which generally aren't paid for in these low-level postions.) So at $5.15 an hour, that's a little more $10,000. Multiply that figure by two and you have a combined income that’s beneath the so-called "poverty line" for a family of four. (Which doesn't include such luxuries as clothing, medical care, car payments, school supplies and many other necessities.)

So these struggling parents work full time and by necessity live frugally, but remain poor, earning only enough to keep their heads above water. And the concept of working one’s way out of poverty becomes more and more of an unattainable dream.

Perish the thought that disasters such as a serious illness or even a major car-repair bill should occur; then these folks exhaust what few savings they might have accumulated and sink deeply into debt, often becoming marked as bad credit risks from then on -- meaning any credit they might get will be at much higher interest rates, or what used to be known as usary.

The benefits of raising the minimum wage are myriad. The money goes right back into the economy as workers acquire a little disposable income. There is less strain on social services if our poorer citizens are able to handle their own expenses.

Republicans are fond of giving tax breaks to giant corporations and wealthy individuals on the theory that the money will then "trickle down" to the rest of us. You rarely hear politicians talking, however, about the benefits of putting more money into the hands of the lowest-paid workers so THEY would have more to spend.

This being an election year, there is a chance enough members may see themselves in danger of being kicked out of office that they will finally pass a minimum-wage hike, since a recent Pew survey found that eight of 10 people favored an increase much like the one Sen. Ted Kennedy proposed last year and again this session. That would bring it up to $7 an hour, still far from living on Easy Street.

Either way, the Republican President and members of Congress aren’t likely to run on their records of opposition to help the least of these our brethren.

What ever happened to “compassionate conservatism,” anyway?

David Grant Long is a veteran journalist living in Cortez.