Tag Archives: minimum wage

The Deepening Divide

America is reaching historic levels of inequality. We are likely to surpass the divide between rich and poor that characterized the Gilded Age, and what is worse, lawmakers are doubling down on policies that eviscerate the middle class and further enrich the wealthy.

We are getting used to seeing articles that tell us how much someone has to make in order to afford basic housing. The bottom line: there is not a single place in the United States of America where someone working a full-time minimum wage job can afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

What about a one-bedroom unit?

You would have to earn $17.14 an hour, on average, to be able to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment without having to spend more than 30 percent of your income on housing, a common budgeting standard. Make that $21.21 for a two-bedroom home — nearly three times the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Forget compassion (the GOP certainly has.) Lawmakers with even a cursory understanding of economics ought to look at that mismatch between the minimum wage and a worker’s ability to afford a roof over his head and realize that people making that wage–people who are spending every cent they have on life’s necessities– have no disposable income to spend in the marketplace.

It is demand that drives our economy and creates jobs; if fewer people can afford my consumer goods, I buy less from my suppliers, who then buy less raw material. I need fewer salespeople, and my suppliers need fewer people on the factory floor.

If we needed evidence that today’s Republicans dismiss both arguments– compassionate and economic–Karen Handel recently reminded us. Handel is running against Jon Ossoff  in Georgia, in a special election to fill a Congressional seat recently vacated by Tom Price. During a debate, Ossoff was asked about the wage issue, and strongly endorsed raising the minimum wage. Handel responded to the same question by saying, “No, I don’t support a livable wage. I’m a Republican.”

While Handel didn’t have to take a hard line on a “livable wage,” her views are not out of the mainstream for Republicans in a place like Georgia, where opposition to any minimum wage is common. The Republican who held the district for a dozen years before becoming HHS secretary, Tom Price, voted against the increase that raised the minimum wage to where it is today.

If America had an adequate social safety net, the wage issue might be ameliorated somewhat, but very few of the working poor qualify for any sort of benefit. The most glaring omission from that safety net, of course, is healthcare. The Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) is imperfect, but it was a step in the right direction. Most other industrialized countries have some version of national healthcare, or single-payer; such systems not only improve health outcomes significantly, they make an enormous difference to low-wage workers.

When a broken leg can mean the difference between an uninsured person paying the rent or being evicted, the Republicans’ current mean-spirited effort to deprive twenty-three million people of health insurance is incomprehensible.

Equally incomprehensible is Congress’ steadfast refusal to allow government agencies to negotiate prices with Big Pharma, or to allow Americans to purchase drugs manufactured in America from countries that have negotiated for–and achieved–lower prices.

If you are poor in the United States, a broken leg or extended bout of influenza is bad enough, but treatment of a serious illness like cancer is simply unaffordable. Doctors are desperately trying to find ways to keep cancer patients alive without bankrupting even those with better-than modest resources.

A group of prominent cancer doctors is planning a novel assault on high drug costs, using clinical trials to show that many oncology medications could be taken at lower doses or for shorter periods without hurting their effectiveness….

The initiative is the latest response to rising concerns over “financial toxicity,” the economic devastation that can be wrought by the high cost of cancer care. With new oncology therapies routinely debuting at more than $100,000 a year, “lots of people are worried about developing drugs that people can’t get,” said Leonard Saltz of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, who helped organize the new group.

Our lawmakers are very good at protecting the profits of drug companies. They are also good at figuring out how to fund tax cuts for the wealthy–just decimate Medicaid and stop subsidizing health insurance for poor Americans.

What they aren’t so good at is recognizing the human, social and economic consequences of continuing to expand the abyss between the rich and the rest.

Making Connections Visible

Part of the reason American policy debates are so unsatisfactory is that they tend to be conducted in “silos”–with little or no recognition of how Policy A might affect issues B and C. This is particularly true of arguments about raising the minimum wage, which tend to focus exclusively on assertions that jobs will be lost and consumer prices will rise.

As cities have ignored those assertions and raised their minimum wages, data has emerged to dispel those concerns. According to economists at the University of California, Berkeley,  who studied nine cities that raised the minimum wage in the past decade, higher wages have virtually no effect on employment;  only restaurants, with their higher-than-average concentrations of low-wage workers, raised prices, but those raises were trivial.

What this wage discussion consistently misses is the fact that the effects of worker pay go far beyond job numbers and the pros and cons of an extra nickel for a Big Mac.

There is research, for example, suggesting that economic insecurity increases domestic violence and other criminal activity, and contributes to social discord generally. But the effect on our communities doesn’t stop there.

Economic development professionals spend their days trying to lure new employers to their cities and towns, and they are acutely aware of what those prospects look for when they are seeking a new location: an educated workforce and good schools, decent roads and public transportation to get workers and customers to and from their place of business, infrastructure (sewers, etc.) adequate for their particular needs, and more generally, an appealing “quality of life.”

Those community assets are supported by tax revenues. Poorly paid workers pay very little in taxes, of course, but that is a relatively minor part of the problem.

When large numbers of workers in an area are underpaid, when they make wages that barely allow them to subsist, they lack the means to purchase any but the most essential goods and services. Overall demand drops. When demand is weak, businesses suffer. (They also don’t need–or hire–more workers.) When the business’ bottom line declines, so do tax revenues.

Anyone who works for municipal government understands the dilemma: how do we stretch declining revenues? Hire fewer police and firemen? Fail to fill potholes and board up vacant buildings In neighborhoods? Grow classroom sizes?  Collect garbage less frequently?

Declining revenues, blighted neighborhoods, fewer city services and a lower quality of life don’t attract new businesses. Economic development stalls.

The American economy depends upon consumption. I happen to think there are a number of unfortunate consequences of that economic model, but it is what we have. When significant numbers of residents in a city or town aren’t being paid enough to allow them to consume, the consequences go far beyond their kitchen tables.

As Kevin Drum has written, in an article for Mother Jones,

Obviously, there’s a limit to how high you can raise the minimum wage without harming the economy, but evidence suggests we’re nowhere close to that tipping point. The ratio between the United States’ minimum wage and its median wage has been slipping for years—it’s now far lower than in the rest of the developed world. Even after San Francisco increases its minimum wage to $15 next year, it will still amount to just 46 percent of the median wage, putting the city well within the normal historical range.

The bigger threat to the economy may come from not raising the minimum wage. Even Wall Street analysts agree that our ever-widening income inequality threatens to dampen economic growth. And according to a new study by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center, it’s the taxpayers who ultimately pick up the tab for low wages, because the federal government subsidizes the working poor through social-service programs to the tune of $153 billion a year.

How many public school teachers and police officers could we pay, how many streets  could we pave, how many parks could we maintain with $153 billion dollars a year…

If We Really Followed the Money…..

I recently came across a citation to a fascinating report from the White House Council of Economic Advisors. (Yes, I know I’m a nerd and my reading habits are embarrassingly dorkish…). But it was interesting!

When asked to study the cost/benefit of various crime reduction policies,  the Council responded with data like this:

The authors consider a few ways of reducing crime. They forecast that hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report…

They also calculated the true social costs of crime. It totaled almost $308 billion in 2014. So a simple move like raising the minimum wage to $12 doesn’t only reduce crime by 3%-5%, it would save $8 to $17 billion a year.

The problem, of course, is that in the United States, policies are not evaluated and/or implemented based upon any sort of cost/benefit analysis. A continuing influence of this country’s early Calvinism is our predictable analysis of even the most prosaic policies as “moral” issues, requiring determination of “deservedness.” We don’t ask, what would work best? Instead, we ask “How do we avoid rewarding people for behaviors (real or imagined) of which we disapprove?”

It comes back to a conviction–evidently baked into American DNA–that if people are poor, they must be morally defective. Lazy. Unmotivated. Lacking “middle-class values.”

And all of the data that demonstrates otherwise is simply disregarded as the product of wooly-headed liberals.

If we made policy based upon evidence, we would add the projected reduction in crime to the myriad other benefits of raising the minimum wage.

  • Increased buying power and consumer demand (as a result of more people having more disposable income) would drive improved economic performance.
  • According to research, easing the incredible stress experienced by so many low-wage families would reduce familial dysfunctions and even domestic violence.
  • Ameliorating the fiscal pressures that cause poor families to move more often would reduce the disruptive effect on the education of children who frequently change schools.
  • And guess what? We would dramatically reduce the current levels of government outlays for social programs. 

Someone trying to support a family on today’s minimum wage does not even reach the federal government’s poverty line for a family of three. They would make about $14,500 per year. The federal poverty line for a family of three is $18,123. If the minimum wage were increased to a level at which families could sustain themselves, fewer people would end up needing government assistance for housing, food, or health care. This would be a significant benefit to taxpayers and to states’ budgets.

So why is it so hard to raise the minimum wage?

One intriguing theory, from the Economic Policy Institute, is that raising the minimum wage may be seen as a women’s issue.

While increasing the minimum wage would have a sizable impact on both men and women, it would disproportionately affect women. That women comprise 54.5 percent of workers who would be affected by a potential minimum-wage increase makes it a women’s issue… The share of those affected who are women varies somewhat by state, from a low of 49.3 percent in California to a high of 64.4 percent in Mississippi (according to the authors’ analysis of Current Population Survey Outgoing Rotation Group microdata). California and Nevada, also at 49.3 percent, are the only states where women do not constitute the majority of those who would benefit.

I hate to be a cynic, but maybe the disproportionate benefit to women is why we have so much trouble getting it done.

Misogyny? Or just our usual penchant for stubborn ideology over evidence?

Dire Prediction, Meet Real-World Result…

The growing pressure to increase the minimum wage is frequently met with a prediction that wage increases will hurt both businesses and consumers–if that hamburger costs five cents more, fewer people will buy it, and that will lead to layoffs that hurt the very people higher wages are meant to help. (It’s interesting–and telling– that the prospect of better pay for employees always triggers an expectation of increased prices for consumers rather than a modest decrease in returns to shareholders. But I digress.)

So how’s that prediction holding up in the real world?

After raising the wages to over 90,000 employees and providing more incentives and benefits, Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s CEO is pleased to announce the company’s turnaround plan is actually working. Profits are up, employee turnover is lower, and customer satisfaction scores are higher.

According to Fortune Magazine,

“U.S. comparable sales rose 5.4 percent, their third straight increase after what had been two years of declines.” This is partly due to their new menu deals and all-day breakfast, but it’s also undeniable customer satisfaction due to happier employees is also a factor in that growth. Which just killed a popular right wing talking point that increasing wages and providing more benefits hurts business, at least for McDonald’s it hasn’t.

So let’s see: McDonald’s CEO says the company measured an overall 6 percent rise in customer satisfaction, and he attributed that improvement to better compensation and incentive packages for employees. (There is no mention in these reports of price increases, nor data suggesting that people have stopped buying Big Macs.)

Not-so-incidentally, it has been estimated that raising wages for McDonald’s employees (and employees of the company’s franchisees, who have not thus far been included in this experiment)  would significantly reduce the burden on American taxpayers. Currently, we are paying 1.2 billion dollars every year to cover public assistance needed just for McDonald’s employees who are not paid a living wage.

In other words, American taxpayers are subsidizing the profits of McDonalds and similar low-wage employers; we are essentially paying that part of employee compensation that represents the difference between what McDonald’s (and Walmart and others) pay their workers and what those employees require in order to live.

McDonalds’ real-world experience suggests that these companies can afford to pay their employees an adequate wage without taxpayer help–and still keep their shareholders fat and happy.

Why Indiana’s Economy Lags

Indiana’s Institute for Working Families conducts research on Indiana’s economy–more specifically, the ways in which the state’s economy is or is not working for low-income Hoosiers who work.

The news, you will not be shocked to discover, is not good.

Recently, the Institute posted a list of 16 reasons why Indiana’s minimum wage should be raised. I encourage you to click through and read them all, but I want to highlight some of the most compelling.

  • There is not one county in Indiana where where working full time at the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is sufficient to support even a single adult.
  • Waiters and waitresses in Indiana are paid $2.13 per hour by their employers (29% of the minimum wage). The last time they saw a raise was a quarter-century ago (1991), even as the industry has seen strong growth and profitability.
  • In Indiana, the median number of work hours at the minimum wage for a single adult to become self-sufficient is 48 hours per week. The number of hours increases significantly to 108 hours for a single adult with one preschooler and one school-age child. For a family with two adults, a preschooler, and a school-age child, each adult would need to work 64 hours for the family to be self-sufficient.
  • Standard and Poor’s cites rising income inequality as “contributing to weaker tax revenue growth”, making it more difficult for state and local governments to invest in education and infrastructure.
  • Children whose parents work for the minimum wage live below the federal poverty line. Research has found that children being raised in poverty have lower academic achievement, poorer nutrition, fewer job prospects as adults, and worse physical health than their more affluent peers.

The usual objection to raising the minimum wage makes superficial sense: if businesses have to raise what they pay, they will hire fewer workers. Logical as that seems, the evidence from decades of research says otherwise. As the Institute notes,

Two recent meta-analyses of research on minimum wage increases during the 1990s found that “the minimum wage has little or no discernable effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers.”

There is a reason for this seemingly counter-intuitive result: when the minimum wage goes up, the buying power of low-wage workers also goes up. Unlike wealthier Americans, low-wage workers spend those extra dollars, and that increased spending boosts the economy. Increased buying power translates to increased sales of goods and services; employers who see improved bottom lines hire more workers.

A raise in the minimum wage to 10.10 per hour would affect 637,000 Hoosiers (23.4% of the workforce). That number includes 436,000 who are currently making less than $10.10 and another 201,000 whose wages would be pushed up due to pay scale adjustments. That’s a lot of additional buying power.

And as an added bonus, paying a living wage to hard-working Americans might ameliorate some of the rage and resentment currently fueling our toxic politics.

Just a thought.