Our View: Working poor need more support

Jul 13, 2019 at 4:29 PM

The United States has for a long time maintained an uneasy relationship with its working poor. Too few legislative solutions look to move them to the next rung while too many amount to a tut-tut over the rung these folks currently find themselves. But in times of great income equality, the attitude toward the working poor seems to have moved in a direction hardly distinguishable from hostility — at least if we judge by the policies put forth — or not put forth.

Last month, the country set a sad record: By then, 10 years had elapsed since U.S. Congress raised the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It was the longest period without an increase since the minimum wage started in 1938. Crucial context to remember is that the cost-of-living goes up every year. So when an employee goes without a raise that amounts to a pay cut.

More context: The U.S. Congress, where the median net worth of members is more than $1 million, is right now debating whether to raise its own pay. Congressional representatives make $174,000 a year, plus benefits which includes lifetime health care coverage for most of them.

Support for the pay boost, as well as opposition to it, defy party labels. Both liberal Democratic firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California back a pay raise. The woman nicknamed “AOC” reasons that if representatives are adequately paid they are less likely to be influenced by outside money. McCarthy said Congress should not just be a preserve for millionaires.

We get those reasons but it hardly makes congressional representatives more deserving of pay hikes over working people who need the extra money — not so they can resist legalized bribery, but to put food on the table, pay for their childrens’ day care and cool and heat their homes.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that raising the minimum wage to $15 would cost 1.3 million jobs — but also lift 1.3 million people out of poverty. That latter is a worthy goal. And job loss would be at least partly offset by more people having more money to spend, a reliable economic generator in our consumer-driven economy.

Here in North Carolina, Republicans – some of them – finally appear to be softening on whether to expand the federal Medicaid program to provide health care to the working poor. But these people must verify they are actually working, the way some legislators see it. They insist on a “work requirement” before people get access to life-saving care and want to charge premiums to people whose budget is already limited.

Gov. Roy Cooper, who has vetoed the proposed state budget partly over Medicaid expansion, counters that trying to enforce work requirements and premiums costs more than its worth, citing the experience of other states. And he added “most of the people we’re talking about, the vast majority of people are already working.”

With too-little policy support, it should come as unsurprising that the number of families classified as working poor has grown dramatically, with one-third of Americans earning less than $12 an hour, according to a 2016 report by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute.

There are pockets of help.States like California and New York have raised their own minimum wages, as have major retailers like Amazon, Costco, Target and Walmart.

We should be doing more. For example, not many states are doing anything, or anything much, to help the masses of people afford post-secondary education, the surest path for most people to better wages.

We need an attitude adjustment. That’s where it starts.

We should not cling to assumptions we may have about why someone does not have a job that pays a living wage. Any number of circumstances could have led to the situation, including changes in the overall economy and a crippling lack of opportunity in too many places, urban and rural.

In our society, many people, including politicians, rail against alleged freeloaders.

But the working poor are working. How about giving some credit where it’s due?


From The Fayetteville Observer