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May 7, 2014

Wage Slaves Can’t Catch a Break

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You see them every day.

They serve you your morning coffee, greet you at your discount department store and make your pizza for dinner.

They’re minimum wage earners and they’re under water, for the most part, and not entirely owing to where they live.

The Center for American Progress used the example of Aarin Foster, a single father of two, who struggles day-in and day-out to make ends meet. As the CAP reports, Foster is a full-time server for a fast-food chain in the Chicago area where he puts in around 30 hours per week, usually working a sporadic, unpredictable schedule.

He even works extra hours on his days off in order to increase his inadequate wages. Although he has worked at the chain for eight years, Foster makes only $8.25 per hour — the minimum wage in Illinois. That amounts to less than $13,000 per year, well below the federal poverty threshold of $19,530 for a family of three. It is barely enough for him to feed himself, much less his two young daughters, ages six and four. Since he cannot afford a car, Foster spends many unpaid hours on the bus, commuting to various subway locations across the city, significantly increasing his time away from home.

“I have to work late hours, which means I can’t see my daughters,” Foster said in an interview with the Center for American Progress. “I walk in, kiss them goodnight, crash into bed, and then I’m right back at again the next morning. I think I get to see my daughters for about 4 or 5 minutes a day. That’s it.”

For people like Aarin Foster, the niggling back and forth arguments by proponents and opponents for a decent minimum wage is so much white noise. He’s trying to make ends meet, like so many million other parents, and they’re simply pedaling as fast as they can and can’t seem to make more headway. But, still, the subject of a decent legislated wage goes on as a political football.

For a look at state-by-state minimums, the National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a list.

As we see from the charts, and not entirely surprisingly, places like Alabama and Mississippi — two of the poorest states in the Union — have no state declared minimum wage.

Georgia and Arkansas aren’t much better — again, depressed southern states — at $5.15 and $6.25, respectively.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the impacts of boosting the minimum wage across the board would “have two principal effects on low-wage workers. Most of them would receive higher pay that would increase their family’s income, and some of those families would see their income rise above the federal poverty threshold. But some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.”

The CBO determined real income for families would increase by billions of dollars, despite initial losses of jobs as an effect — somewhere int he neighbourhood of 500,000, nationally.

Once the increases and decreases in income for all workers are taken into account, overall real income would rise by $2 billion.

  • Real income would increase, on net, by $5 billion for families whose income will be below the poverty threshold under current law, boosting their average family income by about three percent and moving about 900,000 people, on net, above the poverty threshold (out of the roughly 45 million people who are projected to be below that threshold under current law).
  • Families whose income would have been between one and three times the poverty threshold would receive, on net, $12 billion in additional real income. About $2 billion, on net, would go to families whose income would have been between three and six times the poverty threshold.
  • Real income would decrease, on net, by $17 billion for families whose income would otherwise have been six times the poverty threshold or more, lowering their average family income by 0.4 percent.

But, some places in the country aren’t content with just settling for a $10.10 wage.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is making headlines for what some perceive as a progressive step in setting a rising wage tide that will float all boats. Others see it as a disaster in the making that will actually cost the city jobs.

Last Thursday, Murray announced a plan that would incrementally boost Seattle’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and tie it to inflation. The proposal has scored support from a large committee of business and labor leaders, as well as some city council members.

It should be noted Washington state’s minimum is decidedly less at $9.32. A full city council still has yet to vote on the mayor’s proposal, but should it pass, Seattle might not just have a far higher minimum wage than its surrounding suburbs, where businesses can easily move; it might well have the highest minimum wage in the world.

Some, including’s senior business writer Jordan Weissman call the bid “a step too far.”

As he wrote in a piece May 2, “though some workers end up unemployed, enough get raises to make the tradeoff worthwhile. But that assumes we don’t lift the pay floor too high, too fast. Minimum wage studies have typically looked at small increases, somewhere around 50 cents or a dollar. Seattle’s proposal would be far larger. It would also have virtually no U.S. precedent. (Nearby neighbor SeaTac recently upped its own minimum to $15, but the city is little more than an airport and only 1,600 workers are affected.) Adjusted for inflation, the value of the U.S. minimum wage peaked at $10.66 in 1968, as shown in this American Enterprise Institute graph. That’s the ceiling on America’s historical experience.”

Reuters reported last week that President Barack Obama blasted Senate Republicans just hours after they blocked one of his top legislative priorities, a bid to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009.

“They (Republicans) prevented a raise for 28 million hard-working Americans. They said no to helping millions work their way out of poverty,” Obama said at the White House, backed up by low-wage workers.

On a nearly party-line vote of 54-42, Obama’s Democrats fell short of the needed 60 Senate votes to end a procedural roadblock against a White House-backed bill.

The legislation would raise the minimum hourly wage from its current $7.25 to $10.10 per hour during the next three years, and then index for inflation in the future.

Just one Republican, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, joined Democrats in voting to advance the measure.

Senate Majority Leader and Democrat Harry Reid switched his vote from yes to no to reserve his right to bring up the bill again.

With polls showing that more 60 percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage, Democrats intend to hammer away at the issue in an effort to rally their liberal base in advance of the November congressional elections.

“Change is happening, whether Republicans like it or not,” Obama said. “And so my message to the American people is this: Do not get discouraged by a vote like the one we saw this morning. Get fired up, get organized, make your voices heard.”

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the bill would raise the wages of 16.5 million Americans and lift 900,000 of them out of poverty.

But it also estimated the bill could cost up to one million Americans their jobs because businesses may simply be unable to afford to pay them.

Republicans on Monday cited a Bloomberg Poll in which 57 percent of respondents said it was an “unacceptable” trade-off if the bill raised the incomes of 16.5 million Americans while eliminating 500,000 jobs.

Democrats argue an increase in the minimum wage would boost the economy overall by getting more money into it.

“Millions of American workers will be watching how United States senators vote today,” Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said before the vote. “They’ll be observing to see if we ensure all full-time workers in this country receive livable wages.”

The proposal, federally, was for a reasonable $10.10 wage – far, far below the Seattle $15 wage, but far more livable than a near starvation wage of $7.25.

Ask a single mom or a student trying to pay rent, tuition and living expenses how they get by on $7.25.

They’ll tell you it’s grim and getting more grim by the day. Sure wages in other countries are paltry by comparison to the minimum in the United States, but on a $2 a day wage in some Third World countries, earners are living in corrugated tin shacks in conditions that we only see in magazine articles and on documentaries.

There are some truly horrific rates of wage slavery around the world. Click here for a full list.

But, in North America  — in the United States and Canada — where we pride ourselves on being the standard-bearers for supreme styles of living, we see so-called McJobs as the norm for those with little more than a high school or lower-tier college education.

It’s simply not sustainable for a large portion of the population and high time government took the tiller and steered economies on a course of compassion for honest, hard-working people who put in the hours, make the commitment, make the hours-long bus commutes but still can’t get above water.

For Aarin Foster’s children’s future and millions more something must be done and in concert between federal and state governments.


Chris Malette is a retired newspaper journalist with 35 years of experience as a reporter and city editor. Over his career, Malette covered municipal and federal politics, military, health and court beats. He has reported from Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti and covered relief efforts in Honduras in the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. He now works for SPN News as an editorial columnist.