It’s criminal what Congress has done to the working poor

Pub date August 15, 2006
WriterDick Meister
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Congress’s Republican leaders belong in prison. They have openly violated one of our most basic laws, the 68-year-old Fair Labor Standards Act. It requires Congress to set the minimum wage high enough to guarantee a standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being.
The current rate of $5.15 an hour comes nowhere near to doing that. Even those who manage to work full-time make only $10,700 a year – $206 a week or about $900 a month, minus taxes and other deductions. They and the 15 million other Americans who are paid at or near the minimum – more than one-third of them provide the main or sole support for their families – are by any reckoning poverty-stricken and barely surviving.
The law allows states and local governments to adopt minimum-wage rates higher than the federal rate. Although California and 20 other states, San Francisco and 139 other cities and counties, and the District of Columbia have done so, the higher minimums cover only about half of the country’s workers.
Democrats have argued long and hard in the current session of Congress for a higher federal minimum, as they have in every other session since the $5.15 rate was set in 1997. But the Republicans who’ve been running Congress have higher priorities – raising their own pay and cutting the taxes that are such a burden to their wealthy supporters.
Oh yes, the GOP leaders did introduce a bill that would have raised the minimum. But the measure made that contingent on cutting the estate taxes of the very wealthy – a linkage, opposed by even some Republicans, that guaranteed the bill’s defeat.
They’ve raised congressional pay in every session since 1997, while doing nothing for the working poor. That’s added more than $31,000 to the minimum wage of congressional members, currently $165,200, with a $3,300 raise scheduled for Jan. 1. Unlike minimum-wage workers, who rarely have fringe benefits, members of Congress also get free health care, pensions, and other expensive extras.
The minimum wage for ordinary people would have risen to $7.25 an hour over the next two years under the latest Democratic proposal blocked by the GOP’s congressional leaders. Its main proponent, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, promised that the fight to raise the wage “will continue all across America.”
It is certain, in any case, that Democratic candidates will make it an issue in this fall’s election campaigns. They are well aware, certainly, of polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor a minimum-wage increase.
So why in the world are Republican leaders so adamantly against it?
Because their big-money backers in the restaurant business, who employ about 60 percent of all minimum-wage workers, are against it, as are many other business and corporate interests. The opponents have even formed a group, Coalition for Job Opportunities, to spread the fiction, much favored by the GOP, that a higher minimum would force employers to eliminate jobs.
Actually, the number of jobs has grown after each of the 19 times the minimum has been raised since it was initially set at 25 cents an hour in 1938.
The job growth has been spurred primarily by the increased spending of those whose pay has increased. Like all low-wage workers, they must spend virtually every cent they earn, thus raising the overall demand for goods and services and creating the need for new employees.
Think of the general benefits to society if the minimum-wage workers who now must depend on government assistance could earn enough to make it on their own.
Think of the benefits to employers. As several studies have shown, raising workers’ pay raises workers’ morale and, with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and recruiting and training costs.
Think of the benefits to small retailers. Opponents of a raise say they’d be hurt the most by a higher minimum wage, but it’s far more likely that they’d be among the greatest beneficiaries. For minimum-wage workers have no choice but to spend most of their meager earnings in neighborhood stores for food and other necessities. SFBG
Dick Meister
Dick Meister is a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for four decades as a reporter, editor, and commentator. Contact him through his Web site,