From Canton, Ohio With Love and Poverty

Rick North Facebook

More than one in five Oregonians receives food stamps and almost 54% of school age kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches . . . The pervasiveness of poverty in Oregon is staggering.

Until a few weeks ago, Canton, Ohio was best known as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Now it has another claim to fame – a sign in a Wal-Mart saying “Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner.” In Wal-Mart-speak, “Associates” are employees, so yes, incredibly, Wal-Mart was asking customers to donate food so Wal-Mart employees wouldn’t go hungry for the holiday. I swear I’m not making this up.

I lived in Canton for nine years in the 70’s right out of college, first as a high school social studies teacher, then program director for the American Cancer Society, not exactly high-paying jobs. I always liked Canton for a variety of reasons, not least of which was its incredibly low cost of living – housing, food, gas, etc. This allowed a modestly, but above-minimum paid (single) worker like me to live comfortably. It's still a bargain. The median sale price for a house last month was a mere $105,000. According to my college roommate, who still lives there, gas is selling for $3.15 - $3.20 a gallon.

Wal-Mart sales associates’ pay averages $8.81 an hour, according to independent analysts at IBIS World. The United Food and Commercial Workers came up with a similar figure.

My point: If you can’t make it on Wal-Mart’s average pay in Canton, Ohio, you can’t make it anywhere. And if you can’t make it on $8.81, you REALLY can’t make it on $7.25, the federal minimum wage.

It’s not just Wal-Mart that isn’t paying a living wage. With a few notable exceptions, it’s most of the retail, chain restaurant and fast food industry sector. McDonald’s, for instance, also pays its line workers and cooks less than $9.00 an hour on average. To help its employees manage their money better, its website earlier this year suggested they get a second job. A later posting suggested “Pack your bags – At least two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50%.” I swear I’m not making these up either.

The latter posting also recommended “Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full.” I swear I’m not . . . oh, never mind. McDonald’s claims their statements were taken out of context. You can decide for yourself.

Leading the charge against better pay is the National Restaurant Association, whose lobbyists boasted that they killed 27 out of 29 bills introduced in state legislatures in 2013 to raise the minimum wage. They worked alongside other familiar names, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ALEC, on a serious mission to make the 1% safe for plutocracy.

Low wages force many workers to apply for Medicaid, food stamps and other government assistance to simply survive. Employees at McDonald’s, for instance, received $1.2 billion in government aid last year while the corporation made $5.5 billion in profits. A recent report from the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce found that a single 300-employee Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wisconsin would cost anywhere from $900,000 to $1.75 million per year in government assistance, about $5,800 per employee. To borrow a phrase from Ross Perot, that sucking sound you hear is your taxes being used to subsidize corporate low pay.

Oregon has the nation’s second-highest minimum wage of $8.95 an hour, but it’s still not nearly enough. More than one in five Oregonians receives food stamps and almost 54% of school age kids are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, according to the Oregon Department of Education. USDA statistics in 2011 found that 29% of kids in the state were food insecure, meaning they weren’t always sure about having enough food for their next meal. This is partly due, of course, to high unemployment, but the less-publicized story is the devastating effect of low-wage jobs. The pervasiveness of poverty in Oregon is staggering.

But the times may be a-changing . There have been widespread demonstrations for increasing pay this year at fast food chains and Wal-Marts around the country. Police arrested about 15 protestors at a Bellevue, WA Wal-Mart on Black Friday, while down I-5, Sea-Tac had earlier voted to raise its minimum wage to $15.

Back east, New Jersey voters raised the state’s minimum wage to $8.25, over-riding Chris Christie’s veto. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland voted for $11.25 by 2017. And Congressional Democrats are pushing for $10.10, which President Obama has supported. Republicans, who more than 20 years ago supported a raise in the minimum wage, are now mostly lined up behind John Boehner to oppose it.

According to the Center for Economic Policy and Research, if the minimum wage today were adjusted for inflation from what it was in 1968, it would be between $9.42 and $10.75 per hour, depending on the calculation method.

The current minimum wage is a national disgrace, guaranteeing a permanent underclass in the U.S. Here’s a question we should all be asking of our legislators: Shouldn’t a job lift you out of poverty, not lock you into it?

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