Fair Wages for Workers

September 20, 2001

I could not resume this column without noting the horrors of the past week that have shaken all of our lives. In the shadow of these terrorist acts, we all feel deep sadness. We share our love and sympathy with those who have lost loved ones. And, we strive to help -- donating blood, contributing time, money and talents to help in recovery, healing and rebuilding -- signs of the best in humanity. In situations when things that inconvenience might ordinarily anger us, we see people expressing patience, understanding, and generosity.

In that spirit, we try with our own lives to serve humanity and stop the hatred and the violence so evident in our world. As much as we all participate in mourning, we also resolve to move ahead by addressing all elements of life.

Fair Wages for Workers
by Senator John Marty
September 20, 2001

Nobody who works full-time should live in poverty.

This was part of the social compact America made with its citizens in the New Deal: "Workers will receive a minimum wage. If you work full-time, it may not be enough to make you rich, but you will have enough to afford necessities for your family – food, housing, clothing, medical care."

This is not an outdated notion. There is near universal agreement that this is basic fairness. 94% of Americans agree* with the statement: "As a country, we should make sure people who work full-time are able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty."

Unfortunately, for many people, this concept is not reality. Half the people in Minnesota homeless shelters are working people and their families. Many seniors are forced to choose between buying groceries and the prescriptions they need. Other workers take on second or even third jobs to make ends meet.

Barbara Ehrenreich’s powerful new book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" documents the hardship of these low wage workers, how they try to cope – skipping meals, working fourteen hour days, living in cars.

Government doesn’t do much to encourage decent wages. In fact state and local governments often give generous subsidies to businesses that pay wages so low that their workers are trapped in poverty. And, the state of Minnesota provides so little funding for nursing homes that the average nursing aide earns just over $10/hour. This leaves many healthcare workers unable to afford health care for their own families!

When wealthy investors wanted a new home for their hockey team, they hired a team of lobbyists and approached the city of St Paul and the state asking for money to replace a 24-year-old arena. They got the money. Successful businesses routinely get large subsidies from government.

But, when working people cannot afford housing they don’t get a subsidy to pay the rent on a cheap apartment, let alone a subsidy to build a beautiful new house for their family. Perhaps they don’t pay their lobbyists enough.

What must be done to provide justice for these workers? Either low-income workers need higher wages, or government needs to subsidize basic necessities. But government did not meet the need for affordable housing and healthcare during recent years of budget surplus, and isn’t likely to in the future.

It’s time to start talking about a fair wage, a livable wage. Not $5.15 an hour, or even $6.15, but a wage that is sufficient to live on. We have to do it in a way that is fair to small business, but we have to do it.

Why does our political system consider a livable wage for all workers to be an outrageous notion? Isn’t the current situation, where hardworking people can’t afford housing, the real outrage? It is a matter of justice. And, with more than nine of ten people supporting wage justice, it is a fight worth fighting.

*April 2000 poll conducted by Lake Snell Perry Associates for Jobs for the Future, Boston MA
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