Not good enough

T.A. Barnhart

Not good enough

Not good enough

Progressives focusing on “minimum” wage are playing into the hands of the corporate elite. Those of us struggling to earn enough for home, food and shelter need more than the minimum: We need a living wage.

The two concepts are not equal. “Minimum” is the provision of a mandated sum that is deemed, with little empirical support, to be “enough” – just as slaves might be provided enough food to work themselves to death. A “living” wage, on the other hand, is an affirmation that every person has the right to live free from poverty and at a level commensurate with human dignity.

In practical terms, even taking the minimum wage at face value – a legal threshold we apply uniformly across the state – the set amount is never going to be the right amount. Take $15 an hour, as promoted by “15Now” and others, across the state and the nation. For starters, all wage markets are not created equal. $15 an hour might be sufficient in Salem, but in Portland it’s likely not enough and in rural Eastern Oregon it could be a kingly sum. (I don’t know for sure, but comparing Portland-area rents to those in Hermiston and Ontario and even Salem finds a big difference).

Regional differences in wages, rents, food prices, and so on, can be massive. The cost-of-living in a big city versus a rural district can be significant. I remember canvassing for Obama in Waterloo, Iowa, in 2012 and seeing nice houses for sale under $90,000. Not broken-down dumps; these were homes many families would be proud to own and raise their family in. In Portland, unless you earn over $60,000 a year, you can’t afford a house priced on the median ($290,000).

And $15 an hour gets you halfway to that $60k. What kind of a minimum is that?

Fighting for a “minimum” wage is accepting that some people (not everyone is eligible even for the minimum) deserve nothing more than the barest amount they can claw from a political battle with the forces of entrenched corporate and capitalist power. A minimum wage is demeaning, like learning that there exists an amount of rat feces permitted in food production. “Pure enough” isn’t good enough, and “minimum” is just as wrong.

Every person born onto this planet deserves a living wage. Period. That needs to be the standard upon which we build progressive wage policy.This does not mean we give people a free ride. I’m arguing for a living wage, not a guaranteed income. People need to contribute to their communities, not just to “pay their way” but to be fully human. One of the worst parts of under- or unemployment is the sense of being an inadequate person. People need to work, in some capacity or another, and that work has to be recompensed, not with a grudging minimum but a grateful sufficiency.

This is a hard change to make possible. Education, training, infrastructure, fair wealth distribution, progressive tax policy, fair trade; establishing a living wage policy that works is much more difficult than demanding a minimum wage. The conditions in which a living wage for all can be instituted and supported are not what exist in our country today. Making the argument for a living wage requires a commitment to fighting for all that entails.

On the other hand, more than 70% of all Americans support increasing the minimum wage; despite the opposition of the Chamber of Commerce and businesses that rely on a low minimum wage, these measures almost always gain sufficient public support to pass. So a minimum wage is an easy political battle to win. The fight for a living wage is much more difficult. But we’d already surrendered on that when we decided minimum was good enough.

But the minimum is not good enough; not even close to good enough. Only a living wage creates an economic environment that provides sufficiency for everyone. A minimum wage pits struggling worker against struggling worker while the 1% laugh all the way to the bank. A living wage, on the other hand, tells all workers their contributions are valued. Working for minimum wage is a message of how far down on the worthiness scale a person is. By demanding a living wage for all, we establish a baseline of “all people are worthy” and, from that foundation, allow those who can to do even better.

Minimum is not sufficient. It’s not good enough. And it’s the wrong fight for a progressive future.

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