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by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
“No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country… By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of a decent living.” (1933, Statement on National Industrial Recovery Act – Franklin Delano Roosevelt)
Question: In looking at the Living Wage calculator, I see that $10.83 for a single adult in Morris County, New Jersey where I live. This seems fair to me for a single person, but when you add one child to that scenario the rate jumps to $22.12 per hour. This raises a serious question. Does the Living Wage Movement suggest that wages should be adjusted according to need? [ http://livingwage.mit.edu/ ]
Answer: That’s a great question. I am not a spokesman for, or advocate of, the living wage movement as an organization. I do believe that living wages should be the minimum wage in this country. Minimum living wages should be what we pay summer college help or student interns, not full-time employees. It might also be appropriate for part-time seasonal help. It shouldn’t be what we pay permanently hired employees.
To answer your question, I researched what a living wage is in the 130 cities that have living wage laws. It turns out that their wage base is for a single employee, not including any dependents. A living wage in Manchester CT equals $15.54/hour (the highest) while it is $8.50 in Orlando FL (the lowest). It would appear that the Living Wage Movement is looking to index a minimum living wage minimum to local economies based on one adult with no dependents.
That said, the minimum wage in 1986 was $10.86/hour as opposed to its current level of $7.25/hour. If it had been indexed to inflation in 1986 the current minimum wage today would be $23.59/hour today. That clearly was intended to provide for a worker with a family. The current median family size is 2.54 persons per household. That inflation adjusted wage equals about $47,000 per year while the current median family wage is a little over $51,000 per year (and still declining, I might add).
Here’s the thing, we have only been talking about wage adjustments to keep pace with inflation. We have not been talking about raising wages to reward workers for our growing productivity. We have not been talking about sharing the wealth that workers help create so everyone keeps pace with America’s growing economy. Cost of living adjustment are important, but they shouldn’t be confused with a productivity, or merit raise.
America is $1.7 trillion richer today than it was in 1976. Our economy has doubled, yet the share of all that new wealth created by American workers in this same period of time is insignificant.
In the 1960’s my father was an appliance repairman at Sears. His salary was enough that my mother could stay home to raise my sister and me. Her role as mother to the next generation of citizens was valued. Today, a typical family of four making about $51,000 does so because both parents work. And they are only able to make ends meet because of easy access to credit to shift their financial burdens onto their future earnings.
When I speak about a living wage I am thinking about getting back to a point where one breadwinner can hold one full-time job and still raise a small family without needing government assistance to do it. That’s what we had, and that should be our goal as a country.
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The White House put out a brief video on why we should raise the minimum wage to $10.10/hour. It is OK as far it goes, but it is still a little disappointing to me.
Even the White House is looking at minimum wage law though the modern day pro-business bias that has infected all of civil government. Even though raising bottom wages creates an economic stimulus that would boost spending, increase demand for goods and services and create more jobs, this isn’t the most important aspect. The main reason to raise minimum wages is because it’s simply the right thing to do.
The question of minimum wage is actually a moral question. There is no good rationale for paying a full-time employee less than a self-sufficient wage. What is almost half of a human beings waking moments worth? What is the minimum compensation they should receive for devoting that time to enrich their employers? Why should it be less than what is required to survive with human dignity?
From a social perspective, should profitable businesses be held in high esteem as models of efficiency for paying wages so low that full-time employees require taxpayer subsidy to keep from becoming homeless or having their children taken away from them? Should we have to subsidize the labor force of wealthy corporations like Walmart? Should the federal income taxes of those who make more than minimum wage have to be used to supplement the other employees who takes out the trash at night or mow the lawn? Why should any healthy corporation be allowed to boost their profits at public expense through subsidized labor?
If small businesses or start-up company need government subsidies or tax breaks to help pay their help, let these business owners apply for government assistance rather than make their employees feel inadequate by having to beg for government assistance. No man or woman who works hard all day long should have to apply for housing assistance or SNAP or KidCare or childcare assistance or HEAP or any other government subsidy. Let the business owners apply for government aid to help pay employees the self-sufficient wages all full-time workers should have. Let the means testing process for government subsidy programs fall to the employers. Let’s get it off the backs of the working poor and eliminate the social stigma they don’t deserve. Let the minimum cost of self-sufficient labor wages be part of the cost of doing business in America.
Profits for CEO’s and share holders should not come before self-sufficient wages for laborers. Exploiting workers and taxpayers to boost profits for investors and chief executives is immoral.
The cartoon below is from the great editorial cartoonist Stuart Carlson. It highlights with humor a very serious global economic condition, growing wealth inequality.
http://www.gocomics.com/stuartcarlson/2014/06/20#.U9Zns_ldXfJ (Go and enjoy his other cartoons.)
Allow me to breakdown the math for you. These figures work out to an average of $486 per poor person vs. $20 billion per rich person. This is not a measure of income but a measure of wealth, or capital.
Another important math fact from this illustration: If you have $20 billion in capital and earn an average return on investments of 4% a year, and if you lavishly spend $1 million per month on your lifestyle, at the end of 50 years you will still have $140 billion left for your children to inherit. That’s right, if you have seven children they would each get close to the 20 billion that you started out with.
This is the crisis of capital that we face. This fact is among the findings of economist Thomas Piketty in his recent book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Within just a few generations almost all the wealth on the planet will be handed down from parents to children. Almost no new fortunes will be made through the earnings of those who have to work for a living. We will effectively return to a feudal system even here in the United States and abroad. The phenomenon is global. The quicker national and global population stabilize or decline the faster wealth will concentrate among the wealthy.
All we have to do to return to a feudal society is… do nothing.
Someone on facebook asked me, “Is it really the zero-sum game that these breakdowns of wealth distribution always seem to imply?” Good question! Is it the case that the growing wealth of the wealthy must come at the expense of growing poverty Or, doesn’t the growth of capital lift all ships?
When you look at national and global income-to-capital averages you see what looks like fairly stable ratios. Growing capital wealth and growth in income seem to balance. But look a littler closer and you see that more of the population falls into poverty as the value of capital grows at compounded rates. So yes, there is more national income, but there is an ever larger percentage of income coming from capital investments and going to the wealthy. As capital becomes the main source of income, the real earnings of wage earners stretches and collapses at the lower end of the economic scale. For the middle class, it is like being caught between the gravitational fields of two black holes… one created by poverty and the other by capital wealth
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The defeat of Eric Cantor in his primary, and the article below, is instructive because it illuminates the growing populist enmity towards politicians who serve business interests over voter interests. This is at the heart of the growing rift in the Republican party. The GOP establishment serves the interests of Big business over all else and almost mockingly manipulate ordinary voter segments and the small business owners they claim as their base.
The beltway seems baffled by this, but the trend has been clear for some time. Putting people first in politics will be key to winning over the real voter base of both parties going forward. And peeling off small business owners by promoting specific policies that support them and level their playing field against corporate abuses is an essential element for Democrats. Democrats should be the champions of small community business leaders and ordinary citizens. They should be resist the growing corporate influence over government and our lives (without being overtly hostile).
Campaign funding should also be as populist and grass roots as possible, or at least have that as a prominent feature. People should be able to contribute small donations to their candidate’s campaign on line using their pay pal accounts, or they should be able to text a contribution on their smart phone. This not only sets the right tone, it takes action against the influence of big money in politics even if particular campaign must still rely on big donors.. But note that in this race Eric Cantor outspent Brat by a 40 to 1 ratio. The strength of Brats message overcame this huge spending advantage.
As I tweeted earlier today in reference to Cantor: In drawing democrat-proof districts the GOP created congressional district that are toxic to traditional conservative Republicans as well. And traditional conservative Republicans are virtually all big business Republicans. So there is a clear message here for all Democratic candidates. Stop cozening up with corporations and start representing real people.
If Democrats messaging can thread this needle they may be able to pick up disaffected moderate Republican votes while making it harder for radical right-wing Republican’s to vote for GOP supporter of ever more crony capitalism.
Here is a snip of the Nation’s article by John Nicols:
from The Nation
Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.
John Nichols on June 11, 2014 – 12:21 AM ET
The DC-insider storyline about this being a great year for the Republican establishment is undergoing a rapid rewrite. For the first time since the post was formally established in 1899, a House majority leader has been defeated in a bid for renomination. And as political prognosticators, Republican stalwarts and savvy Democrats search for explanations, they are being forced to consider complexities they had not previously entertained — including the prospect of conservatives who are ready and willing to criticize big business.
Eric Cantor, the face of the GOP establishment, one of the party’s most prodigious fundraisers and the odds-on favorite to become the next speaker of the House, lost his Virginia Republican primary Tuesday to a challenger who promised, “I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful.”
Dave Brat, who defeated the number-two Republican in the House by a 56-44 margin, tore into big business almost as frequently as he did the incumbent. “I am running against Cantor because he does not represent the citizens of the 7th District, but rather large corporations seeking insider deals, crony bailouts and a constant supply of low-wage workers,” declared the challenger.
Image credit: www.businessinsider.com
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
Decades of frozen wages relative to our expanding wealth is the root cause of many economic problems. More people falling into poverty, a shrinking middle class, declining retirement savings, increased welfare spending, higher unemployment, more aid to working families, declining government tax revenues, diminished funding for Social Security and Medicare, a sluggish economy (despite a record high stock market), slow job growth and heighten social tensions along the traditional fault lines of race, ethnicity and gender are among the many issues influenced by decades of wage stagnation.
Beginning in the late1970’s most American workers received only cost of living adjustments in their paychecks while their real earnings gradually diminished each year. Employers increased hourly wages to keep pace with inflation, but they suddenly stopped raising wages to reward workers for their productivity. Earned income has declined for most Americans as a percentage of our gross domestic product (GDP) This amounts to a dramatic and intentional redistribution of new wealth over the last 40 years. Nearly all this new wealth has gone to the rich and powerful.
The visual evidence of wage stagnation relative to hourly GDP is apparent in one powerful graph (below). You may have this it before.
The effects of wage stagnation on our economy have been gradual and cumulative. Its impacts don’t raise red flags from one year to the next, but the cumulative effects are obvious. The trending rise in income inequality, for example, was missed entirely for 25 years, and then it still took another decade for it to catch the public’s attention.
According to USDA data on the real historical GDP and growth rates[i], the U.S. economy grew by $368 trillion between 1976 and 2013. That is a 109.4% rise in national wealth, more than a doubling of the national economy. Almost none of that wealth was shared with wage earners. If hourly wages continued to grow in proportion to hourly GDP, as it had for decades prior to the mid-70’s, the current median family income today would be close to $100,000 a year instead of the current $51,017 per year.[ii]
Think about that for a moment, and about all the implications for wage based taxes and payroll deductions. For simplicity sake, let’s say wages would have double if the workforce received productivity raises. That would significantly reduce the number of families currently eligible for taxpayer subsidies such as SNAP (food stamps), housing assistance, daycare and the like. At the same time the workforce would be generating much more income tax revenue.
Consider next the impact wage stagnation has had on payroll deductions. Social Security and Medicare premiums have not financially benefited from the growing economy. Double current wages and you double current revenues for these programs as well. Moreover, the economy has grown at an annual rate of 2.9% since 1976. If Social Security and Medicare had benefited from this new annual wealth, the effect on current revenue projections would be profound. We would not be looking at a projected shortfall any time in the future.
The impact of wage stagnation on consumer spending is perhaps the most insidious problem. While worker wages have stagnated, the production of goods and services has grown. How is that possible? Some of this production is sold in foreign markets, but domestic markets are still primary. And it is here where economic theories have done a disservice.
A generation of economists and business leaders have treated consumers and workers as if they were not one and the same. This has fractured how we look at the economy and given rise to the notion that labor is just another business commodity. It disguises the fact that labors wages fuel consumer spending. Wages help drive the whole economy while wage stagnation reduces consumption over time.
To overcome this effect we have seen the need for mother’s to enter the workforce in mass, and for banks to invent credit cards to bolster consumer spending. These and other creative measures can no longer forestall the decline in worker spending. So while the financial markets ride the tide of America’s growing wealth, the fortunes of those who have been cut off from that new wealth continue to slip beneath the waves.
As for social tensions among different racial, ethnic and gender groups, the effect of stagnant wages relative to the nation’s growing wealth creates a lifeboat mentality and zero sum thinking. For the first time in many generations parents are worried that their children will have less in life than they had. When the whole pie is shrinking a bigger slice by one person means a smaller piece for others. This thinking exists because for over 95% of wage earners the economic pie hasn’t grown in 40 years.
You may not be ready to accept chronic wage stagnation as “the syndrome” underlying our economic woes, but it’s also true from my experience that having solutions (or “treatment options”) at hand often makes it easier to identifying the problems they resolve. With that in mind, I want to offer some solutions to America’s low wage conundrum.
One direct approach to raising worker wages is the one currently being discussed in the public dialogue, raising the minimum wage. This benefits the lowest paid workers and also puts pressure on employers to increase pay for other lower wage earners. The current target of $10.10 per hour would still leave many families at or below the poverty line. Workers making the new minimum wage would still be eligible for some public assistance for the working poor. While passing a minimum wage law is at least possible, this option is not a systemic solution to wage stagnation. Even index the minimum wage to inflation would not compensate for declining wages relative to GDP growth.
Another direct approach to ending wage stagnation is to pass a living wage law. This would set the minimum wage at a level that would allow everyone working full-time to be financial independent from government assistance, including subsidized health care. A living wage law could be indexed to the local cost of living where a person is employed. This is idea because it takes into account local economic conditions which are determined by market forces rather than government edict. But passing a living wage law in the current political climate is unlikely.
There are other ways of encouraging wage growth that don’t involve direct wage regulation. One idea would require the federal government to recoup, through business income tax rebates, the cost of taxpayer supported aid to working families from profitable businesses that pay employees less than a living wage. Employee wages are easily identified through individual tax returns. Eligibility for taxpayer supported subsidies are relatively easy to estimate as well, so recouping public funding to support a company’s workforce is a practical possibility. A portion of the recovered money could be paid into Social Security and Medicare to make up for lost revenue due to substandard wages.
A welfare cost recovery plan could gain popular support given the growing public resentment towards taxpayer funded social programs. At least 40% of all full-time employees in America currently require some form of taxpayer assistance to financially survive. More importantly, this plan places the burden of supporting the workforce back on profitable businesses where the responsibility lies.
Another solution has been suggested by former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, and others. They support proposed legislation, SB 1372, that sets corporate taxes according to the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of the company’s typical worker. Corporations with low pay ratios get a tax break. Those with high ratios get a tax increase. This would effectively index worker wages to CEO compensation in a carrot and stick approach to corporate taxes. The details and merits of this approach is outlined elsewhere.[iii]
Do U.S. businesses have the financial capacity to offer higher wages to their workers? I would like to answer that question with another graph that you may also have seen before.
Credit: Blue Point Trading http://www.blue-point-trading.com/blue-point-trading-market-view-june-07-2012
There is a clock ticking somewhere in the background on this issue. There is a point somewhere in the future where it will be too late to fix wage stagnation through the normal democratic processes. History has proven this to be true. We are not at that point now, but we are past the point treating wage stagnation earnestly.
[ii] As of 2013 the median family income of $51,017 x GDP growth of 109.4% = $104,796 per year
by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
New Jersey recently published the annual “Taxpayers Guide to Educational Spending”. The headline in the Star Ledger was that school spending is up 5% over last year. This is hardly news given that inflation alone accounted for 1.7% of the increase.
Much of the remaining 3.3% increase in school spending is structural by design. Consider that new teacher salaries start low and increase annually as they gain experience. We also compensate teachers as they obtain higher educational degrees as a means of improving the quality of our teachers. Add to this the fact that the total number of teachers gradually increase as student enrolled numbers creep up a little every year. Then there is the higher than inflation increases in fuel costs that drive up the cost of student transportation each year. The retirement of higher paid teachers and administrators don’t quite balance out these other factors.
What irks the public most about this 5% increase is really the story behind how we fund public education in New Jersey. It just seems unfair. And when you look under the hood, it really is unfair. Wealth based public school funding is regressive in nature. It favors the wealthy and disfavors the poor. What it costs to educate a child doesn’t vary that much between wealthy and poor school districts, but the value of property and therefore the tax base varies a lot. In today’s economy especially, the prosperity in wealthy school districts is growing rapidly relative to per pupil costs while property values in less prosperous school districts are in decline.
To understand the disparity of wealth based public education funding, let’s take affluent Morris County as an example (located in the central most area of the Northern half of the State). Morris County has many wealthy school districts, such as Harding where the average home sells for over a million dollars. It also has districts like Wharton where the average home sells for a quarter of that amount, or about $251,000. Property values in Dover are a bit higher, but the median family income in the Dover school district is just $59,000 compared with $160,000 per year in Mountain Lakes. (Fig.1 below)
One way to gain some perspective on property based school funding is to compare what it costs to educate a student with what it costs to buy a home in the same district. In the eleven wealthiest districts of Morris County, home prices are 30 to 50 times more than the educational cost per pupil. Home values are just 16 to 18 times more than per pupil costs in the 12 poorest districts. As a general rule, the higher a district’s property values, the lower the tax rates. The reverse is usually true in poorer districts. Districts with lower property values, and lower income levels, generally have higher tax rates. While the 11 wealthiest districts in Morris County pay a little more to educate children in their district, their property tax rates are about one-third less than in the 12 poorest districts. (Fig. 2 below)
The dramatic contrast between home values and per pupil costs is partially masked when just comparing tax rates because, in the suburbs, wealthier districts tend to have fewer households. Fewer household to share the tax burden mean higher tax rates to generate sufficient revenue. Despite this fact, tax rates in 8 or the 11 richest districts is among the lowest in Morris County. Only three of these wealthy districts have higher per pupil costs while three have among the lowest per pupil costs. This highlights the fact that education costs are similar across the county. The average district cost per pupil is $17,730, plus or minus $2,038. There are a few outliers in either direction.
Educational costs vary far less than home values from district to district, so families in wealthier districts have a far easier time affording public education than families at the lower end of the economic ladder. While New Jersey’s State School Aid formula is supposed to help balance school funding across all districts, it does little to correct the underlying inequality and unfairness of wealth based educational funding.
Taxpayers’ Guide to Educational Spending 2013: http://www.state.nj.us/education/guide/2013/
General Tax Rates : http://www.state.nj.us/treasury/taxation/pdf/lpt/gtr13mor.pdf
Average Home Sales : NJ Spotlight News @ http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/13/02/28/average-home-sales-prices/ For March 1, 2013
Median Income and # Households: http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/13/12/19/median-income/