Another Labor Day is in our rear view mirrors, but the struggle for workers’ rights continue unabated. With summer recess for both Congress and local state legislatures drawing to a close, we can expect more anti-worker attacks in a number of states seeking to dismantle unions or fight against growing pressure to raise the minimum wage.
The Cato Institute, a right wing think tank and public policy group, is jumping to the front of the line with a new study that reveals there are 35 states in which “welfare benefits” are higher than the state’s minimum wage. An article published by Forbes takes the study and runs with it with very little critical analysis, ignoring a number of details such as one very important one: many of the “benefits” the authors tout as welfare are housing, medical and food subsidies that are often used by families who work at minimum wage but still need state or federal support because their pay is so low.
The recent fast food workers strikes, which are now spreading across the country, are putting a much needed spotlight on the real struggles of minimum wage employment. That scrutiny reveals that Cato is right about one thing: far too many states have a minimum wage that is just too low.
The answer, of course, isn’t that welfare and other social safety net programs need to be cut (or even worse, as the columnist suggests, taxed, as if those on public subsidies have any cash lying around to pay for such a thing), but that we need a real, livable wage that actually comes somewhere near the “$15 an hour” the fiscal conservatives claim welfare benefits equal.
The largest issue standing in the way of a true living wage effort is one of public perception. Predominately, when the general public envisions minimum wage workers, they see teens working after school jobs or college students taking a break during the summer. Yet that doesn’t describe the vast majority of those employed in low wage industries. As a graphic based on data provided by the Economic Policy Institute succinctly notes, 88 percent of minimum wage earners are 20 years old or older, and average around 35 years old; 56 percent of them are women; the workers earn half of their family’s income; and 22 percent of them have children at home which they are trying to raise with these hourly wages.
If the right really wants less government dependency, they need to stop fighting the passage of laws that will allow workers to support themselves and their families without needing multiple full time jobs just to keep afloat. Until politicians stop getting major donations from industry giants, however, that may be as much of a pipe dream as all hourly employees receiving a living wage.
No wonder the strikes continue to grow.
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