Opinion

The Great Debate

Why not a war on child poverty?

President Barack Obama’s recent speeches at the LBJ Presidential Library and National Action Network marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act had a serious omission. While acknowledging “our work is unfinished,” Obama failed to mention this nation’s worst social trend: the stunning increase of children and youth living in poverty.

Since 1969, the proportion of children and youth in poverty rose by 56 percent, even as the economic fortunes of the elderly improved under programs like Medicare and Social Security. Today, 32 million American children and youth are confronting poverty — including 7 million suffering utter destitution, another 9 million living in serious poverty and 16 million more in low-income households struggling just above poverty lines.

Even as Obama has launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help poorer young men, his administration continues to largely ignore this larger issue. In fact, Obama said, addressing youth poverty “doesn’t take all that much.” No federal money has been budgeted for the initiative.

Instead, My Brother’s Keeper is initially to raise $7.5 million from 10 major foundations for “consultants,” and then perhaps attract $200 million in “private investments” over the next five years — largely aimed at mentoring, church and related programs. One key component, for example, is an effort to make sure impoverished young people “make better decisions.”

My Brother’s Keeper simply rehashes earlier efforts: President Bill Clinton’s “personal responsibility” campaign of the 1990s, the Robert F. Kennedy/Ford Foundation “Gray Areas Program” of the 1960s and similar government/private ventures. All promised new breakthroughs. None produced enduring success.

Executive orders: Part of the framers’ grand plan

President Barack Obama has used his executive authority to stop deporting undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. The administration has also announced that it will stop requesting mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

Obama is now using executive orders and other unilateral exercises of executive power to advance his agenda rather than wait on Republicans in Congress.

The GOP has grown increasingly outraged by the president’s actions. House Republicans last week passed the “Enforce the Law Act,” part of a continuing campaign to label any action by the president as “executive overreach.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) earlier this year felt the need to “remind” the president that “we do have a Constitution.”

On minimum wage: Mind the Gap

Just 24 hours after Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25 would deal a “devastating blow to the very people that need help most,” Gap Inc. announced it would raise employees’ minimum pay to $10 per hour by next year.

In striking contrast to the alarms sounded by McConnell, Gap chief executive officer Glenn Murphy emphasized the benefits of this pay raise for the company’s lowest-paid workers. He described it as a “strategic investment to do more for our employees” — one that  will help “attract and retain a skilled, enthusiastic and engaged workforce.”

If there’s a lesson in the recent tug-of-war over the Congressional Budget Office’s report estimating the impact of a federal minimum wage increase, it’s that despite the dire predictions made by opponents of raising the minimum wage, many CEOs have already seen that higher wages are good for business.

FDR set the terms for labor executive orders

Many critics have called President Barack Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage for federally contracted workers an unprecedented bold action. The president bypassed a gridlocked Congress to increase pay to $10.10 an hour — and raise labor standards for the only federal workers directly within his authority.

This move is a significant step in combating income inequality. The federal government is the largest low-wage job creator — with more than 2 million low-wage workers. That’s more than Wal-Mart and McDonald’s combined.

This move is bold, yes. But not unprecedented. The path to this solution was paved more than 70 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The middle class’s missing $1.6 trillion

The United States was the world’s first middle-class nation, which was a big factor in its rapid growth.  Mid-19th-century British travelers marveled at American workers’ “ductility of mind and the readiness…for a new thing” and admired how hard and willingly they labored. Abraham Lincoln attributed it the knowledge that “humblest man [had] an equal chance to get rich with everyone else.”

Most Americans still think of themselves as middle class.  But the marketing experts at the big consumer goods companies are giving their bosses the unsentimental advice that the middle class is an endangered species. Restaurants, appliance makers, grocery chains, hotels are learning that they either have to go completely up-scale, or focus on bargains for the struggling and budget-conscious.

Current income surveys, for statistical reasons, usually segment families by broad categories, which obscure the recent radical shift of income to a thin stratum of the super-rich. Well-to-do people may buy $100 coffee pots, but the lion’s share of the income growth has been going to folks with five houses and staff to make the coffee.

The minimum wage fight: From San Francisco to de Blasio’s New York

In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama urged cities and states to bypass Congress and enact their own minimum wage increases. “You don’t have to wait for Congress,” he stated.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the president’s advice. De Blasio announced, in his State of the City address, that he plans to ask Albany next week to give the city the power to raise the minimum wage.

The New York mayor is not the only elected official putting Obama’s words into action. Cities across the country, from New York to Seattle, are moving aggressively to confront rising income inequality and falling real wages for low-paid workers. These cities can learn important lessons from San Francisco’s bold experiments over the last 15 years.

It’s not just fast-food workers who are underpaid

Akil Poynter, 20, works 30 hours a week at a St. Louis area McDonald’s, earning $7.35 an hour for manning the grill. Since the Florissant Valley Community College student can’t get by on that income, he took on a second job, preparing sandwiches and salads at a local Panera Bread. There he receives $7.95 an hour for another 25 hours of labor a week.

Asked the difference between his two employers, Poynter says there isn’t much of one. Panera’s nicer surroundings and higher-quality food don’t translate to better working conditions. “The environment is different but the work is the same,” Poynter noted. “Workers are working their butt off every day to get their paycheck.”

As a coalition of groups, including Fast Food Forward and Fight for 15, prepare to undertake one-day job action against fast-food establishments in 100 cities this Thursday, it’s worth taking a moment to contemplate Poynter’s words.

Will a minimum wage destroy German jobs?

Germany has once again become the world’s favorite whipping boy, roundly criticized over the past few days by the U.S. Treasury, a top International Monetary Fund official and the European Commission president, among others, for running record trade and current account surpluses that are supposedly detrimental to the European and global economy.

The arguments continue, with the Germans themselves saying that the surpluses are simply the happy result of the nation’s industrial competitiveness and don’t hurt anyone else. Lost in the debate, however, is what’s happening in Berlin right now. As Chancellor Angela Merkel seeks to form a new coalition government, she appears to be on the verge of throwing out some of the very policies that underpin the export boom of the past decade.

Most controversially, the new government to be formed is likely to introduce a minimum wage, a novelty for Germany, and a move that both symbolically and in reality would herald the end of the tough wage restraint that has characterized the past decade. A range of social policy changes, including a possible reduction in the retirement age, are also being discussed, as is higher government spending.

Trying to raise a family on a fast-food salary

Fast-food workers in more than 50 cities Thursday are striking for fair pay and the right to form a union — the biggest walkout to hit the industry. This latest round of labor unrest comes 50 years after hundreds of thousands of Americans, led by Martin Luther King Jr., joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, demanding not only civil rights, but also good jobs and economic equality.

One demand of the 1963 marchers was raising the federal minimum wage to $2 an hour. In today’s dollars, that’s roughly $15 an hour — what the striking fast-food workers are now calling for.

For all the progress made since 1963, the reality is that economic inequality persists and continues to grow. Income inequality is greater today in the U.S. than in any other OECD nation, except Chile, Mexico and Turkey, and exceeds that of many developing countries.

Rebuilding America’s high-wage economy

Good for President Barack Obama for emphasizing the need to restore America’s middle class. However, the actual proposals in his new summer offensive would not go very far toward that worthy goal.

America is moving, at an accelerating pace, toward an economy with tens of millions of poorly paid service jobs at one end, and a relatively small number of astronomically compensated financial jobs at the other. In between the fast food workers, who demonstrated this week for a living wage, and the hedge fund billionaires is a new creative class heavily based on the Internet. But the web entrepreneurs are too narrow a segment on which to rebuild a broad middle class.

For a quarter-century after World War Two, America was a far more equal society — with jobs that paid a “family wage” on a single paycheck. One question dividing economists now is whether the more equal, high-wage economy of the postwar era is irrevocably gone with the steel mills of Pittsburgh. Or whether a service economy can become an egalitarian one with a different set of policies.

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