Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that — for the first time — a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America at market rates. That means more and more people like Michelle Kennedy — a former Senate page and author of "Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America" — are finding themselves homeless and living out of their cars.
At a town hall meeting in Ohio last Saturday, Representative Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a staunch advocate for social and economic rights — he and Bernie Sanders are the two best candidates running for Senate in 2006 — railed against stagnant wages' contribution to economic hardship. "It is unacceptable that someone can work full-time — and work hard — and not be able to lift their family out of poverty." He blasted a system where a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $10,500 annually, while "last year the CEO of Wal-Mart earned $3,500 an hour. The CEO of Halliburton earned about $8,300 an hour. And the CEO of ExxonMobil earned about $13,700 an hour."
This past weekend Robert Kuttner argued in the Boston Globe that while people are blaming undocumented workers for driving down wages, the real villains are "the people running the government, who have made sure that the lions' share of the productivity gains go to the richest 1 percent of Americans. With different tax, labor, health, and housing policies, native-born workers and immigrants alike could get a fairer share of our productive economy."
Kuttner points to Census data showing that "median household income fell 3.8 percent, or $1,700, from 1999 to 2004...during a period when average productivity rose 3 percent per year." And while income is falling, working people are increasingly squeezed. Costs for housing, healthcare, education and childcare rose 46 percent between 1991 and 2002, according to economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.
And the situation is getting worse. Look at the Delphi Corporation's moves as reported in the Washington Post on Saturday. The company asked a bankruptcy judge to void its union contracts so it could lower worker wages and benefits. CEO Steve Miller played the ever-reliable global competition card saying, "At the end of the day, Delphi must be competitive in the global marketplace."
But as Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, makes clear, this new tactic will further erode labor's power in the workplace. "What in our laws and in our democracy gives a bankruptcy judge the right to take away freedom of association and collective bargaining?" Bronfenbrenner asked. "Bankruptcy judges should not have that power. Now they do."
In the current climate — with tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; a minimum wage frozen for eight years and a GOP-dominated Congress; deterioration of labor's power in the workplace; and corporate-authored free-trade agreements that exacerbate these trends — it is heartening to hear Sherrod Brown make the case that "a hard day's work should mean a fair day's pay." But where are the other Democratic leaders who should be standing by his side?
The Democratic Party needs to regain its moral compass, its heart and soul. Sounding an alarm on this economic catastrophe befalling so many Americans is what heart and soul is all about.
By Katrina Vanden Heuvel
Reprinted with permission from The Nation