Election day this year made clear that most Americans, even Red and Blue Americans, agree on one thing. No, it’s not that Obama is bad (or good). It’s not “change.” Or even mistrust of Washington.
It’s this: American workers aren’t paid enough.
Worker pay wasn’t on the ballot, exactly. But around the country, in Blue and Red states, the minimum wage was. And everywhere a higher minimum wage passed everywhere. Sure, this shows a solid amount of sympathy with the working poor. But I think the support is even more fundamental than that. Minimum wage measures represented the only chance workers had to express at the ballot box how they feel about their incomes.
And they feel angry. They should. How else would you explain the incredible unanimity around a topic that only impacts 4.3 percent of the population (and probably less than that). Americans know they are underpaid. A minimum wage measure gave them a chance to have at least some impact on that problem.
As I’ve been discussing in The Restless Project, the math of America has become cruel for much of the middle class. Averaage jobs with average pay don’t support an average lifestyle. We know this implicitly: People earning more money than they’ve ever dreamed still can’t afford to save for retirement, or to put their kids through good schools. Median income, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t budged much since the late 1960s.
And I believe even that data is overly optimistic. Inflation adjustments from the federal government are low because they ignore certain realities of the economy, such as the real cost affording a college degree and servicing student loans. All governments understate inflation.
Here’s the example I use most often. When my parents purchased the home I grew up in back in 1969, my rather was earning about $10,000 a year as a teacher and they purchased a decent suburban home for $27,000. My mother stayed home to take care of the four of us. In fact, my father ended up going to graduate school after we were born on that teacher’s salary. What family can afford to live like this today? Let’s keep the math simple. Know anyone earning $100,000 as a teacher/social worker/nurse who lives in a place where $270,000 homes grow on trees?
Sure, raising the minimum wage is a good idea. It’s such a good idea that Republicans might even steal it and seize some moral high ground. I believe it’s a red herring, however. I’m worried that folks who care about worker rights will spend all their political capital and focus getting that 4.3 percent of America a $40-a-week raise. That would be a grave disappointment to Americans who need more money, and lots of it, to get back to living standards of our parents.
A good place to at least begin the conversation is the notion of a “living wage.” What does it really cost to support a family in your town? It’s probably closer to $25/hour. Sorry, I’m going to waste another hour or two of your time, but click on over to the MIT Living Wage calculator for a city-by-city estimate of living wages. In my hometown of Wood-Ridge, N.J., just outside New York City, a single mom with two kids needs to make $27.76 /hour — or $50,000 a year — just to survive. Try your town and see what you come up with. Here’s the reality:
“A typical family of four (two working adults, two children) needs to work more than 3 full-time minimum-wage jobs (a 68-hour work week per working adult) to earn a living wage,” according to LivingWage.MIT.Edu.
And that’s without any savings for college, or retirement, or….next month, for that matter.
Solving this problem will require a number of steps. A federal law that sets an absolute floor on the value of an hour’s work isn’t a bad start, but it really won’t get us very far. What America really needs is the economic security of knowing that good schools are free, good colleges are affordable, good health care is a given, and good workers can earn enough to pay for their shelter during the first week of the month. Only then will the cruelty of America’s math problem start to relent, and the restlessness we all feel begin to recede.