There isn’t a lot of economic wiggle-room for the low-wage American worker.
We’ve just celebrated Labor Day and the focus — far too little in this writer’s opinion — is on the state the American worker, and by extension, the state of American families. It’s a very unpopular phrase among the right-leaning populace, but the situation can’t be called anything short of class warfare. When the jobs now being produced in this economy are paying less and are far more transitory than the jobs that were lost; when 1 in 6 Americans are dependent upon food stamps for their daily bread — and another 1 in 2 will be at some point in time — it’s a war alright, and the casualties are piling up.
The U.S. Labor Department recently revealed that the number of temporary workers in the U.S. has hit the highest level ever: 2.7 million. The shocking and sad reality is that one fifth of the total job growth that has occurred since the recession ended in 2009 has been in the temporary workforce sector.
Low-wage, temporary work is becoming the new norm in the new American economy – creating a permanently temporary class of workers. Big corporations like Walmart, Nike and Frito-Lay have made the financial calculation that the temp system saves them money on things like health care, workers’ compensation claims and unemployment taxes, and thus temp agencies have become the primary vehicle in filling traditional factory jobs.
The vast majority of the blue-collar temp workers are predominantly immigrants and minorities forced to work in the temp system due to a lack of opportunities in an economy that consistently forwards the belief that corporations are people but workers are not. Their daily ritual consists of rising in the early morning, sometimes before the sun has, and sitting in or just outside a temp office where they hope their name will be called.
In present-day America, there are more temporary workers than ever before. The usual trend is that temporary work increases during a recession and goes down as the economy improves. This time, however, economists predict that the numbers in the temporary workforce will remain high.
So when we hear that unemployment has declined over the past few years, the unspoken and profoundly unacknowledged asterisk is the very temporary and insecure nature of the new jobs. This does not bode well for those who are attempting to make ends meet now, nor is it encouraging news to future participants in the workforce.
Although we have in this past week commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I Have A Dream” Speech, it’s also been 45 years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His death occurred while he was in Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.
The percentage of union members in the American workforce has declined in the last 60 years from 35 to 12 percent. This decline is the result of a lack of a cohesive strategy and an oftentimes inconsistent and incoherent message on the part of organized labor, and conversely, a well-orchestrated and consistent attack by the right wing on unions and workers’ rights across the country.
The fact that public opinion has been on the side of organized labor for quite some time becomes a point of frustration when we see how little it has impacted the problems of stagnant wages and job security. Since 1936, public support for unions has not dipped below 48 percent – and even when public opinion hit that low point in 2009, those supporting unions still polled higher than those who disapproved. Today, that approval rating stands at 54 percent – the highest it’s been since the aforementioned 2009.
The handcuffing and decimation of labor by Republican legislatures and governors across the country has been well documented, but one the biggest blows to unions was the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Knox vs. the SEIU. The court’s ruling prohibited public-sector unions from charging non-members for political activities even though the same non-members can reap the rewards of what that union accomplishes – higher wages, rates of promotion, days off, etc.
This decision becomes even more egregious when compared to the Citizens United verdict — while unions are prohibited by law from spending employees’ dues and fees on politics if the employees object, corporations are free to spend their assets on politics even if individual shareholders don’t want them to.
Yes, organized labor is winning the battle of public opinion, but appears to be losing the war of actually effecting policies that capitalize on that support.
Minimum wage, maximum hardship
Over the last five years of the crisis, the inequality of wealth and income has gotten worse, only adding to the generation-long erosion of wealth and income for the average American citizen and family. The peak for the minimum wage, in terms of its real purchasing power, was 1968. In today’s dollars, the minimum wage was approximately $10.50. It has declined ever since.
The minimum wage is $7.25 today – and at the end of the day, that’s what really matters: what I can actually buy with the money I’ve earned. The people at the bottom of the pile have seen their economic condition worsen over a 50-year period, while during that same period, wealth has accumulated at the top.
While the harsh truth of the need for a ‘living wage’ has been highlighted by the recent McDonald’s and Walmart workers strikes, many in the upper echelon of American wealth are still making the same tired argument, which goes some to the tune of “if you raise the minimum wage unemployment will rise because the employer doesn’t want to pay the higher wage.”
If that is the rationale, then why not make the minimum wage even lower because more people will be able to get a job? Is the reason why we won’t ask that particular question because we already know the answer — that we are already living in a reality where most of the lowest-wage jobs make it nearly impossible to make a sustainable living?
President Obama said in his second inaugural speech:
“We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
Those lofty ambitions have been tamped down a great deal as Congressional intransigence meets executive devotion to incrementalism – neither side seems particularly committed to raising the minimum wage to a level that would actually ensure anything close to a reasonable standard of living. The way the current economy works, or doesn’t work, means employees are shackled to jobs that give close to nothing because, in fact, the alternative is nothing.
The cupboard is bare
The definition of food insecurity is when household experiences times of uncertainty that it will have — or simply doesn’t have — the food to meet the needs of all household members due to insufficient money or other resources.
As of early 2013, nearly 48 million Americans received food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That’s about 15 percent of the country. The right wing continually trots out the innocuous welfare boogeyman of the month to support their claims that food stamp and public aid recipients are unscrupulous and lazy parasites. What their narrative leaves out, however, is that although some households, depending on income and situation, qualify for the maximum benefit, the average food stamp benefit is approximately $3 per day – that’s about a dollar a meal for anyone who’s counting. Some get as little as $10 a month.
The 2009 Recovery Act temporarily boosted SNAP benefits by 13.6 percent for all SNAP households. As a result of legislation passed in 2010, the increase will terminate in November 2013, however, causing a significant and sudden drop in benefits for every household in the program. Based on the CBO’s latest food inflation projections, for families of three, the cut likely will amount to $20 to $25 a month – that works out to anywhere from seven to eight less meals a month per household.
These numbers hardly resemble the revenue-sucking monster that certain politicians and pundits have made those in desperate need of assistance out to be.
Another misconception regarding food insecurity is that obesity and malnutrition are at opposite ends of the spectrum, when in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The relative price of fresh fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40% since 1980 when the obesity epidemic first began. In contrast, the relative price of processed foods has gone down by about 40%. So those individuals and families with less means to purchase food have to choose between more expensive, more nutritious meals, and less expensive, less nutritional meals. On a budget, that means less nutritious food over a given period of time.
And because we’ve subsidized the basic ingredients for processed foods and do not, for lack of a better word, underwrite the growing of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, this nation has essentially priced out scores of American homes from healthier diets – and so obesity and type-2 diabetes become our legacy as a society. Add to this dynamic the emotional and psychological toll on those families trying to figure out how to eat for a month or where the next meal is going to come from, and you may even add an increase in the body’s production of the fat-inducing stress hormone cortisol.
To be sure, obesity can be a byproduct of overindulgence, but that’s far from the only reason. Obesity can be just as much the outcome of having too few resources as it is having more than enough. So when it comes to summoning the moral will of this nation in attacking the epidemic of food insecurity, it becomes important that we all are properly educated on the causes and consequences.
There is a Christian scripture that says, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” The key phrase is “will not” and that distinction is not small in significance because it’s at the heart of the strawman argument that some conservative forces have constructed in regard to assistance for those in need. Most of those in need of food stamps or who go to food shelves are working. Eighty-five percent of households with food-insecure children had a working adult, including 70 percent with a full-time worker.
To encapsulate the plight of the average full-time minimum wage worker, let’s consider the following numbers:
Federal minimum wage: $7.25
Average monthly salary: $1256.66
Average rent, one bedroom: $700 – $900
Average rent, three bedrooms: $1200 – $1500
Average basic utilities per month: $160.11
Average Internet per month: $45
Average for monthly bus pass: $65
Average monthly grocery bill: $389.56
If we do the math, there isn’t a lot of economic wiggle-room for the low-wage worker. And these are just the base numbers that don’t reflect the lack of benefits, the increasingly temporary nature of employment, the possible health issues of the worker or within the worker’s family, problematic working conditions and fewer legal remedies to address them, and so on.
This state of affairs cannot be defined as anything other than unsustainable and nothing short of a crisis, and yet where’s the governmental response? What’s the plan, Governor, Congress, Mr. President?
If the label of ‘superpower’ only means drones strikes and nothing about ensuring that the 50 million citizens – which includes 17 million children – are no longer dangling over the abyss of hunger, then that nation isn’t worthy of the designation.