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A Moral Outrage

“Every time a minimum wage worker draws a paycheck he or she gets another notice that, in the eyes of our society, his or her life is cheap---and getting cheaper every year.” Said Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Okalahoma Baptists. He is right. The buying power of the federal minimum wage is the lowest it has been in fifty-one years. For almost the last ten years, the federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour. The 1968 minimum wage, adjusted for inflation would be $9.09 in today’s dollars.

The Republicans keep telling us how good the economy is. And it is good, if you are a corporation or CEO. The average CEO last year made 10.9 million dollars, 262 times the average workers wage of $41, 861. The average worker made almost four times the $10, 712 that the full time worker being paid the federal minimum wage made. Corporations are making record profits; CEO’s are being paid record salaries. But real wages for labor continue to fall. As minimum wage workers fall below the poverty line they qualify for government sponsored assistance programs for food and health care and sometimes housing. An employee who is well fed and healthy is more productive, than one who is hungry and unhealthy. The corporation benefits from this increase in productivity that is being subsidized by the taxpayer. Yet corporations are paying less and less of their share for this tax burden. In the 1940’s corporations paid 50% of the taxes, today they pay less than 7%. The middle and working class, who find the tax burden increasingly being shifted onto them, pick up the slack. Yet their real wages are declining too. Engineers have seen their wages fall 14% in the last five years. And even though we have been experiencing a housing boom, construction workers actually make one cent less per hour than they did in 1965.

Who earns minimum wage? Forty-eight percent are between the ages of 25 and 64 and contribute more than half of the income for their family, 36% percent are the sole earner for their family. Sixty two percent are white, sixteen percent are African American and seventeen percent are Hispanic. Two thirds are women. Twenty percent of U.S. children, under the age of six, live below the poverty line. Republicans had a chance to do something for these children living in poverty, but they chose once again to block attempts by Democrats to raise the minimum wage. Congressman George Miller said, “For nearly ten years the Republican leadership has stood in the way of a raise for America’s lowest paid workers. That is a shame, it is an insult, and it is a moral outrage.”

The House Appropriations Committee approved an increase of $2.10 an hour to the minimum wage as part of the labor, health and education bill. Speaker Dennis Hastert put the bill on hold, not allowing the Congress to have an up or down vote on the matter. Democrats then attached the same wage increase to a bill funding science and law enforcement. Rep. David Obey said, “I gave the Republicans fair notice that we will attach it to anything we can.” Senator Edward Kennedy proposed attaching the same amendment to the defense authorization bill. But just because the Republicans control the Congress, don’t assume nothing is getting done; they did manage to pass a cost of living increase—for themselves.

Congress voted itself a two percent pay increase, a $3,300 pay raise, bringing their current salaries to $168,500. In the nine years Congress has refused to raise the federal minimum wage, Congress has voted themselves nine pay raises, totaling almost $35,000 a year pay raise. But Congress needs that pay raise. After all, according to the Consumer price index, the price of a gallon of gas was $1.22 in 1997; today it is $2.94 (5/2006). The price of a loaf of bread in 1997 was 85 cents; today it is $1.08. The price of one-pound of ground chuck was $1.85 in 1997; today it is $2.58. Congress needs that raise; the cost of fuel, food and housing has risen. Congress apparently thinks the minimum wage worker doesn’t need fuel, food or housing. Senator John Edwards said, “Nobody who works full-time should have to raise children in poverty or in fear that one health emergency or pink slip will drive them over the cliff.”

Many Republicans will try to tell you that raising the minimum wage results in higher unemployment. Studies both here and in Britain do not bear that out. But even if you buy that argument, remember we are in a tight job market right now. That is what the whole immigration debate is about. American employers don’t hire illegal aliens because they want cheap labor; they hire them because there are no American workers to take the jobs. I am sure given the choice they would hire an American who has been displaced by the minimum wage increase than an illegal alien.

Democrats have promised to take America in a new direction. The first day they control the Congress, they will raise the minimum wage. Senator Clinton has proposed raising the federal minimum wage and tying all future congressional pay raises to increases in the federal minimum wage. While I like the idea of Congress having to consider the poor when giving themselves a raise, I think greater security would be achieved by indexing the minimum wage. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation would provide automatic cost of living raises to the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. Florida, Oregon, and Washington already index their state minimum wage. At the turn of the last century we saw the robber barons of industry making record profits while failing to pay a living wage to their workers. Moral outrage brought Americans together to change the rules. These rules provided a minimum wage, a forty-hour work week, and health and safety provisions. It time for Americans to change the rules again, to ensure that the benefits of growing economy are widely shared with all that participate in its growth. Anything less is a moral outrage.

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