Will US leaders ever address the wealth gap in our nation?
This op-ed originally appeared in the Florida Sun Sentinel.
For most American children, the holiday season is a magical time when presents appear, sweets abound, and winter vacation means sleeping late and a long break from school.
Yet, as the US economy fails to provide decent jobs and pay to more and more working parents, for millions of children and other family members, the holidays are neither a time of bounty nor joy.
In fact, about 15.4 million children under age 18 live in households where the primary breadwinner is paid less than $11.50 per hour, according to a new study by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute. All told, more than 60 million Americans — working parents, their partners, their children and other family members —are in low-wage households where Santa has little to offer.
Many have to find Christmas meals at food pantries, buy used toys, and take on more debt.
Indeed, Myshana Joyce, who is paid $7.50 per hour and works an irregular schedule at a McDonald’s in Miami, will have very bare-bones holidays this year with her young son.
“I bought three things for him, but it’s so hard,” she said. “I don’t get a proper income, sometimes making just $147 a week. I struggle with my rent and often don’t have any food in the house. If we get put out, we have nowhere to go.“
Although some may think that most low-wage workers are teenagers in summer jobs, 8 out of 9 are not. In fact, the 25 million-plus workers who would get a raise if the minimum wage is increased, more than one-third are parents.
Six million mothers and 3 million fathers in low-wage jobs not only care for their children, but they are breadwinners in households that include millions of spouses, partners, aging parents, siblings and other relatives. These workers’ pay accounts for more than half of family income.
The percentages of all children and all family members in any US household with a low-wage worker are both around 25 percent. In some congressional districts, those numbers rise above 40 percent.
The fact that one-fourth of people in working families are supported by a low-wage worker is yet another disturbing sign of the growth of the low-wage economy, the dwindling of the middle class, and growing inequality.
While the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, set by Congress in 2007, leaves a family of three with an income well below the 2014 poverty line of $19,790, the top 0.01 percent of Americans had average annual incomes of $30.8 million in 2012.
“The purchasing power of the minimum wage has been eroding for decades,” said David Cooper, the EPI economic analyst who crunched the data for this new study, and is more than 30 percent less below what it was in 1968 in inflation-adjusted dollars.
“Millions of workers and their families are struggling to make ends meet because we’ve let the minimum wage stagnate for too long.
“There’s no need for it — we can boost family incomes for a quarter of the people in working families nationwide if Congress acts.”
Historically, in the post-World War II era as well as in Catholic social teaching, people spoke of a “family wage,” a wage that a worker could support his or her family on.
The new data sadly show that that day is long past, and we are now in an economy where too many workers cannot support their families on meager wages of $8 or $9 per hour.
To survive, millions depend on government benefits like food stamps, turn to food banks and pawn shops, or go deeply into debt, typically using payday lenders that charge triple-digit interest rates.
Moreover, as Ms. Joyce poignantly said, low wages undermine families in other ways. Such jobs are often associated with long, irregular hours — not to mention any paid sick leave or vacation to be with one’s family. While raising the minimum wage alone will not solve the problems of a low-wage economy that affects tens of millions of Americans, it would be one step toward making our nation a more fair and just society.