Forgetting Unpleasant Truths

A minimum wage salary equals poverty. It's time for Congress to change that.

| Fri Jun. 23, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Last week, Representative Dave Obey of Wisconsin, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, along with Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, offered an amendment to a massive fiscal 2007 funding bill for labor and health programs that would increase the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.75 over the next two years—the first rise since 1997. Obey noted that “Millions of Americans who work hard every day are struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads because the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with inflation.”

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But USAToday reported that the amendment is “likely to be stripped out when the measure comes to the House floor.” And indeed, that amendment has been “put on a backburner.” Moreover, on Wednesday, a similar proposal was defeated in the Senate, leading Senator Edward M. Kennedy to say “I don’t think the Republicans get it.”

And clearly, they do not. Indeed, you have to wonder whether those policymakers who oppose increasing the minimum wage have any memory of the scenes that occupied most Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—and the reasons why so many could not evacuate New Orleans. They seem conveniently to have forgotten that most of those who did not leave were the poorest of the poor and that they either had no cars, no money for gas for a long trip on crowded highways creeping along at a snail’s pace and burning fuel, no money for bus or train tickets, and no money to pay for places to stay once they left.

Among the policymakers reluctant to endorse measures to benefit the working poor are many of the same ones who applaud FEMA announcements promising speedier future relief efforts—and warnings that such relief cannot be instantaneous and that people must take responsibility for their own survival in the immediate aftermath of another natural disaster.

To help people save themselves, FEMA has prepared a list of what people should have on hand for the three days immediately after a natural (or terrorist) disaster, what it calls a “basic disaster supplies kit”:

  • Three-day supply of nonperishable food
  • Three-day supply of water—one gallon of water per person, per day
  • Portable, battery-powered radio or television and extra batteries
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit and manual
  • Sanitation and hygiene items (moist towelettes and toilet paper)
  • Matches and waterproof container
  • Whistle
  • Extra clothing
  • Kitchen accessories and cooking utensils, including a can opener
  • Photocopies of credit and identification cards
  • Cash and coins
  • Special needs items, such as prescription medications, eye glasses, contact lens solutions, and hearing aid batteries
  • Items for infants, such as formula, diapers, bottles, and pacifiers
  • Other items to meet your unique family needs

It would do us all good to sit down and add up the costs of buying these items. If you do and say, “It’s not really that expensive and it could save your life,” you are one of the privileged members of our nation, not one of the millions of American who live from paycheck to paycheck, often a minimum wage paycheck, or one of the 21 percent of retirees whose only income is a Social Security check. Congratulations.

Why couldn’t someone on minimum wage fit a “basic disaster supplies kit” into the household budget? I’ll do the math for you: someone on minimum wage earns $5.15 an hour for a forty-hour week, which comes out to $206.00 a week, and just under $11,000 a year, well below the poverty level. And out of that salary comes rent, transportation to and from work, food, clothing, and so on.

Even if by some miracle you’d managed to put away some of these basic supplies, how long would they remain stored away for an emergency? Well, what would you do if you were a single mother working for minimum wage, had just paid the rent, and found yourself low on food? Would you let your children go to bed hungry, or would you turn to the food from the kit and hope that you’d be able to replace it later?

After spending a great deal of time searching state FEMA Web sites and calling around to those offices and other agencies in Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi, it seems that nothing is yet available (at least can be found by a someone conversant with research) to help provide basic supply kits to those citizens without the resources to purchase them for themselves.

That brings us to the crux of the matter: our government should find a way to help those who are mired in poverty work their way out of it. It is the only way to ensure that people can manage in the face of disaster. But today, all too many lawmakers are far more interested in ensuring that the rich remain rich, that the generous tax cuts they receive increase, that those on top remain there.

Somehow the current outlook among all too many politicians brings to mind the infamous statement, “Let them eat cake.”

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