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Salary of a full-time job should be enough to lift workers from poverty

Melvin B. Miller | 1/22/2014, 12:05 p.m.
History focuses on the human rights aspects of Rev. Martin Luther King’s ministry. Ironically, he was on a mission for ...
In memoriam: Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 15, 1929 — April 4, 1968 Photo by Dan Drew

History focuses on the human rights aspects of Rev. Martin Luther King’s ministry. Ironically, he was on a mission for economic rights in support of wage increases for garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn., when he was assassinated. Undoubtedly, Dr. King would support present minimum wage efforts to raise workers’ salaries to lift them from poverty.

The United States is unquestionably the wealthiest nation in the world. Nonetheless an estimated 15.1 percent of the population lives in poverty — 46.2 million Americans. Of that number, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 10.5 million are employed. That amounts to 7.2 percent of the labor force. There is a movement underway to alleviate the problem of the working poor by raising the federal minimum wage from the present level of only $7.25 per hour.

Decades ago it was thought that the minimum wage was primarily for youngsters still in the care of their parents and for entry level workers who were learning the skills necessary for promotion. Most low salaried employees were retail clerks and fast food workers. According to the National Employment Law Project, fast-food workers are now not just ambitious teenagers. The average age is 29, and 26 percent are parents.

At $7.25 an hour, the income for one year is $15,080. The poverty level for a family of four is any income less than $22,050. The scarcity of employment at better pay has forced Americans to accept minimum wage jobs, and they usually have to have multiple jobs to put food on the table.

More affluent Americans have little occasion to witness the difficulties of those struggling for survival during an economic downturn. It is too easy to blame the difficulties of the poor as being self-inflicted. But the basic element of the problem is that the federal minimum wage level has not kept up with the cost of living. The value of the minimum wage has declined by 30 percent in the last 40 years.

Advocates for change have been proposing a federal minimum wage of $10.10. That would provide an annual income of $21,008, still less than the poverty level for a family of four, but a step up. Some protestors want an even greater jump in the wage but resistance from the business community is very strong.

During the Ronald Reagan presidency (1981-1989), the concept of trickle-down economics gained popularity. Another way of expressing the concept is that a rising tide lifts all boats. But that is not what has been happening in the U.S. For example, in 2012 the income of the top 1 percent of earners rose by 20 percent, while all the rest (99 percent) saw only a combined growth of 1 percent. So much for the trickle-down theory.

President George W. Bush (2001-2009) provided substantial tax cuts to the wealthy, in compliance with the trickle-down principle, with the expectation that the so-called “job creators” would invest in the economy. Instead the nation had the “Great Recession” by the end of 2007. Now America has the largest income gap between the rich and the poor since the 1920s.

Every state has the right to establish a minimum wage that is higher than the federal level. In Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $8 an hour. However, the state Senate has raised that to $11 an hour by 2016. While that increase is making its way through the legislative process, an organized protest group called Raise Up Massachusetts collected signatures to place a minimum wage of $10.50 an hour on the ballot next year. They collected more than 280,000 signatures, enough to be on the ballot.

Many conservatives make it appear that those seeking a reasonable wage are claiming unwarranted benefits. American workers should not be treated like supplicants when the titans of industry have failed to create jobs that provide their employees with a reasonable living standard.