By Eoin Molloy
When speaking at a Laborfest conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on the 1 of September this year, President Barack Obama used his speech to make a renewed push for an increase in the federal minimum wage. It was the first time the President had visited this event since his first address here on the campaign trail back in the heady ‘Yes We Can’ days of 2008.
President Obama spoke of his ‘vision of an economy where opportunity is open to everyone who’s willing to work hard.’ While ‘I’ve got a vision’ is hardly as catchy as ‘I have a dream’, the President made a rather pertinent point when he said: ‘I’m not asking for the moon, just a good deal for the American workers.’ The two-term leader remains adamant that American minimum-wage workers ‘deserve a raise’.
This speech was aimed as a dig at Congress members who have been less than accommodating when it comes to implementing their Hawaiian-born President’s policies. Obama himself signed an executive order in February of this year dictating that employees of federal contractors should receive no less than $10.10 an hour, a decent jump from the current hourly rate of $7.25.
Raising the minimum wage has become the focus of Obama’s second term following the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. The minimum-wage increase legislation was most recently blocked by the Republican-dominated Senate in April by a margin of 54-42. The Senate majority leader, Republican Harry Reid, lead the charge against implementing the bill despite supporting the actual legislation himself. The Republicans plan to re-introduce the bill at a later stage, presumably after Obama leads office.
Partisan politics aside, the minimum wage in America is fast becoming a humanitarian issue. Most minimum wage jobs exist in the food sector, which was dominated by teenage workers before the recession. Nowadays, however, there are as many adults working in fast food restaurants as there are teenagers. It must also be taken into consideration that the average fast food worker does not get a 40 hour week. Depending on what time of the year it is, most workers get about 25-30 hours a week.
At $7.25, a worker doing a 25-hour workweek earns $181.25 before taxes. This does not enable your average worker to rent decent accommodation nor raise a child. Therefore the minimum wage worker becomes excluded from major aspects of life. They are not able to participate meaningfully in society without the aid of means-tested government benefits. In 2013, there were 23 million households in receipt of food stamps in America, according to data from the US Department of Agriculture.
All the while corporate profits are growing. In 2013, McDonald’s gross revenue amounted to 28.11 billion, up from 22.74 billion in 2008, according to http://www.marketwatch.com. As profits go up, pay-checks go down and income inequality widens irrevocably. Through the food stamps program, the US is essentially subsidising the profits of multi-national corporations. Companies like McDonald’s could clearly afford to pay their workers a decent living wage.
Spiralling inflation is the reason why the minimum wage simply has to increase. In 1979 a minimum wage worker had to work just 130 hours in order to cover a year’s worth of health expenses. In 2013, a minimum wage worker has to work 749 hours (that’s almost 19 weeks) in order to receive the same coverage. Therefore, it is abundantly apparent that minimum wage workers are not earning enough if they have to work over almost half the year to cover just one of their most basic human needs.
The current situation was summed up perfectly by writer Kurt Vonnegut in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater. He said: ‘Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed.’
One talking-head who completely espouses the disconnected Republican thinking on the subject of the federal minimum wage is Bill O’Reilly. The Fox News pundit came under intense scrutiny earlier this year after he spent a segment of his talk show outlining ways Americans living on $7.25 an hour could improve their lots in life. He said:
‘Never waste money. You don’t need all those trinkets. Get rid of your vices. Save your lose change. Save ten cents for every dollar you make. Because living off $7.25 is hard enough, enjoy living off $7.15 instead.’
Apparently Mr O’Reilly (whose show airs on expensive cable television) does not realise that people who earn $7.25 an hour can’t even afford food, let alone luxurious television packages. Americans earning minimum wage are essentially living in poverty. This is something the Harvard-educated (somehow) O’Reilly could never even begin to understand. Minimum wage workers can’t meet their rent, and it’s not because of trinket-addiction. Nor would your landlord be very happy to receive their rent payments entirely in ten-cent coins.
The real solution here, in spite of what people like Bill O’Reilly might have you believe, is curbing the greed of multi-nationals. Since there is a minimum wage (which, thanks to inflation is fast becoming appalling low), why is there no maximum wage? Why can’t we place a maximum limit on profits, so that the rest of the haul can be shared out amongst the everyday workers? Without them there would be cash cow for the senior executives to milk. It is time to give decent humans a decent human wage.