This Labor Day with a national unemployment rate stagnated at 9.1% (even higher at 12.9% in Nevada), it’s more important than ever to take stock of the day supposedly set aside for the purpose of honoring working people.
Washington Post liberal opinion maker E.J. Dionne posits almost tongue-in-cheek, the unfashionability of honoring labor when today’s culture has more respect for “capital” than “labor.” “Workers have faded away in both high and popular culture, too,” he writes in “The Last Labor Day.”
In full arrest.
We’re in an election cycle where politicians on the Left and on the Right scramble for solutions to cure a national unemployment problem in full physiological arrest. The only differences being the type of electroconvulsive therapy employed. Is it neurological or ventricular?
On one hand, there’s the call for more stimulus defibrillation, which is politically and fiscally inexpedient when there’s a severe case of deficit angst. And on the other hand, there’s the purported unemployment antitoxin of eliminating the minimum wage, which is akin to prescribing ‘two-aspirins-and-call-me-in-the-morning’ for a patient about to flat-line from a rattlesnake bite.
But then those running for political office have seldom tasted poverty or subsisted at the margins as “Working Poor.”
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the working poor as persons who spent “at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level.”
About 43.6 million people or 14.3 percent of the U.S. population, lived at or below the official poverty level in 2009. Of that number, 10.4 million individuals were among the “working poor.” According to the 2011 HHS Poverty Guidelines, the poverty level for 2011 was set at $22,350 (total yearly income) for a family of four.
The minimum wage in many places tracks with or at slightly better than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, which translates into less than $14,000.00 per year assuming the worker works 240 days in a year, 8 hours per day for a total of 1,920 hours. It also tracks definitionally with working poor.
Years ago, I remember my fleeting acquaintance with the middle-aged cashier at the 24-hour convenience store where I bought my 5:30 AM coffee on my weekly road trip from Portland to Seattle. Her graveyard shift ended at 6:00 AM but her second job started at 8:00 AM. A single mother, she was hanging on by holding down 2 minimum wage jobs.
And more recently, there was the Arizona golf course refreshment cart worker who told me that when a golfer takes a beer from her beverage cart without paying for it, the theft comes out of her pay. She told me she was paid $3.00 per hour so an hour’s wage wouldn’t pay for the cost of the stolen beer.
Her employer can get away with paying her that sub-minimum base hourly wage called the “tipped employee minimum” because she’s classified as “a tipped employee.” This is defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act as a service worker earning more than $30 in tips a month, which makes her eligible to receive an even lower base pay known as a special minimum wage rate. But the “good news” is that if her tips don’t get her to Arizona’s $7.35 hourly minimum, her employer is required to make up the difference that preserves her status as “working poor.”
At $3.00 per hour, however, she’s fortunate. Arizona’s “tipped employee” minimum tracks with the federal tipped employee hourly minimum of $2.13.
The low paid road to human needs.
Unless basic human needs are first met, the individual won’t be in a position to achieve higher growth needs, including what Maslow termed “self-actualization,” i.e., the realization of the individual’s full potential. I learned this reality first-hand through the course of my own work life as well as watching that of my parents.
Fast forward from university to 10 years ago when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of life as one of the low paid and miserable, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Full potential is unobtainable when you’re jobless or underpaid or robbed of your dignity.
Scrambling to make ends meet is hard work. It’s unforgiving. It’s unrelenting. And it’s looked down on, much less culturally honored or respected.
E.J. Dionne’s take, then, is hardly new. It’s just that simple-minded politicians offering simplistic solutions to get people working again never quite get it.