Living-wage ordinance opponents ignore the harm of poverty wages

Milton Fisk, Bloomington Herald-Times, 4-20-04.

This guest column was written by Milton Fisk of the Bloomington Living Wage Coalition.

There is a lot worth noting in recent Herald-Times editorials, letters and articles on the living wage. They fail, though, to emphasize the harms done by poverty wages, wages that are not sufficient for meeting basic needs. Once we recognize that these harms exist, we can ask whether the ordinance the Bloomington City Council will discuss can begin to reduce them.

Employees deserve mention first among those harmed. Poverty wages sap their self-esteem, commitment to work and interest in civic activity. They do so by sending employees the message that employers are using them without regard for their needs.

Though poverty wages cut employers’ expenditures, they harm employers by creating a habit of relying on taxpayers or donors to provide employees with what insufficient wages fail to provide. This cuts efficiency, since employers don’t reckon with the real costs of labor.

Poverty wages also hurt the rest of us, making us complacent in the face of the unfairness of putting people to work for less than they need to live. We think we’ve done our part when we help out with the unmet needs. Still, accepting this unfairness separates us from those receiving poverty wages and walls us off in a different community.

An ordinance on the lines proposed by the Bloomington Living Wage Coalition would be a beginning step toward ending these different harms.

Though its critics are against poverty, none of them is against poverty wages. They say we should turn to government and private donors to keep people alive and alert enough to be employable at poverty wages.
Indeed, programs like Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and job training deserve support and expansion so long as the economy is creating jobs at poverty wages. Still, one needs to put their origin and growth in perspective. They have become part of a massive cost shifting from employers to the public. They do provide the resources some can use to escape from poverty wages, but job creation for poverty wages continues and the numbers at those wages don’t drop.

We have a choice. Do we continue with Wal-martization poverty wages with the additional cost of buying necessities shifted to the community? Or, do we strike out in a different direction living wages with employees who feel respected, with fewer turnovers in employment, and with a more united community? An ordinance to use public funds for a living wage would start us in the latter direction.

Two things have triggered the passage of living-wage ordinances in, thus far, 120 cities. One is the decline of the federal minimum wage since 1968. The other is the decline of the average worker’s wage in the private sector since 1973. These declines followed strong rises in both during the three decades after World War II.
This change from rise to decline was no accident. A race to the bottom for low wages began three decades ago and continues today. It has strong corporate and political backing. It shifts the costs of low-wage employment to taxpayers and donors.

It wasn’t living-wage advocates who made wages the crux of the issue of poverty. The race to the bottom already did that for them. A living-wage ordinance is recognition of the harms done by the past three decades of declining wages. We can’t now afford to be sidetracked by proposals that allow the race to the bottom to continue.