Working and Poor in the USA
Inadequate wages are only part of the problem. Most of these workers lack basic job benefits. In 1995 less than half of workers making under $20,000 a year were offered health insurance by their employer. Only one in five workers with incomes below $20,000 has pension coverage. For low-wage parents with children under 6, one-third do not get paid vacations or paid holidays. And most low-wage jobs fail to provide sick pay or disability pay. These jobs leave little flexibility to care for a sick child or deal with an emergency at school--let alone the normal appointments and needs of everyday life. Quality childcare is unaffordable for most, and many nighttime shifts and employers' schedule changes make it harder and more expensive to obtain.
Low-wage workplaces are often physically dangerous and emotionally degrading. High injury rates are common. Constant surveillance, time clocks, drug testing and rigid rules reinforce the workers' pervasive sense that employers do not trust them. Fear is the chief motivator: Being five minutes late can mean losing a job. A few minutes too long in the bathroom can bring punishment. It is consistent with this lack of respect from employers that these workers are half as likely to receive employer-sponsored training as workers in higher-wage jobs.
These conditions are no accident. Over the past quarter-century, a variety of political, economic and corporate decisions have undercut the bargaining power of workers, especially those at the lower end of the work force. Those decisions included the push to increase global trade and open global markets, government efforts to deregulate industries that had been highly unionized, tight monetary policies and a corporate ideological shift away from the postwar social contract with employees and toward the principle of maximizing shareholder value. During the same period, the most vulnerable workers were deprived of many of the institutions, laws and political allies that generally helped to counterbalance these forces. Liberal allies who historically had championed their interests mostly sat silent. Unions were in decline. Minimum-wage, fair employment and labor laws were weakened.
Today, Americans can make different choices. Democrats should call for a compact with working Americans that establishes the mutual obligations and responsibilities of employers, workers and government. The compact would have a simple and clear purpose: It would insure that if you work hard you will be treated fairly and have the resources to provide for yourself and your family.
One place to start is raising the minimum wage to $8.70 and indexing it to inflation. The compact should require that industries receiving public funds through contracts, tax abatements or other subsidies provide quality jobs with benefits and living wages. Access to affordable healthcare must be provided to all workers and their families. Workers need to know they can get time off to be with a sick child or an elderly parent without fear of losing their jobs or a day's pay. Quality childcare and early education should be made available to their children. And workers must have the right to organize without fear of intimidation, harassment or being fired.
In the past, we have established standards and rights to insure that older Americans would not be impoverished or go without healthcare, to prevent young children from working and to insure equal opportunity in employment regardless of race, religion, national origin, sex or age. Now we must set standards to protect the well-being of all working families and the integrity of the nation. It is urgent, both morally and politically, for the Democratic candidates to confront this critical issue.