The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

In 2016: It’s the wages, stupid

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Jose Motolinia sweeps the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Well over 2.3 million janitors and building cleaners make a median hourly wage of $11.27 an hour ($23,440 per year). Many work evening hours (when buildings are empty), and the work can be “physically demanding and sometimes dirty and unpleasant.” (See Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Janitors and Building Cleaners,” 2015.)

A new Oxfam report exposes the shocking reality that nearly half of US workers are stuck in jobs with low wages and scant benefits. Could supporting an agenda to raise wages mean success for candidates in November?

The US political primaries have revealed an electorate growing angry and uneasy. A new report by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) addresses one root of this anger: the growing number of workers stuck in low-wage jobs with few benefits.

In fact, we found nearly half of all US workers earn under $15 an hour. Almost half of private sector workers lack even one single paid sick day to take time off to recover from illness or care for a loved one; over 80 percent of low-wage workers lack any earned sick time. The United States has both the highest percentage of workers in low-wage work and fewest required number of sick days of any rich country on earth.

This is an economy out of balance. But it isn’t inevitable. Indeed, it’s the result of decades of political choices which put the well-being of people behind the wealthy and powerful special interests who continue to block essential policy reforms. Since 1978, the paychecks of CEOs have increased by 1000 percent–while the real value of the federal minimum wage has dropped by 18 percent. If that doesn’t make voters angry, they’re probably not paying attention.

The impacts of this inequality are felt at kitchen tables across the country. Our new report found 125 million Americans live in households with at least one worker earning under $15 an hour; 31 million of those are kids–two out of every five children. This includes many workers who lost better paying jobs, and are now forced to suffer the indignities of life on low wages. Millions of our neighbors are deciding whether to buy groceries or pay the electric bill; or sending their kids to school when they’re sick because they can’t miss the paycheck.

During the 1992 Presidential campaign, in the midst of a recession, renowned political consultant James Carville said the election would boil down to one thing: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Candidates’ focus on the economy translated to success in the voting booth. In 2016, after we’ve battled our way through the 2008 recession, tens of millions of hardworking Americans are still receiving too few rewards from our nation’s economic growth.

Today, I’d adapt Carville’s wisdom to say: It’s the wages, stupid.

If we want to address the root of voters’ anger, we need to support policies to raise wages, especially for the lowest paid Americans.

In our report, Oxfam and EPI call for our country’s leaders to get behind a new “agenda” with four policy proposals that would provide substantial wage increases for low-wage workers:

  1. Raise the federal minimum wage.
  2. Provide access to earned sick leave.
  3. Protect overtime pay for millions of workers.
  4. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).

Not only are these policies good for workers, they’re hugely popular with voters. In a recent poll, Oxfam found almost nine in ten general election voters in the seven most important Presidential swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia) support federal action on increasing the minimum wage and requiring paid sick leave, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. For voters who have a low-wage worker in their household, support for increasing the minimum wage jumps to almost universal levels (96.7 percent and 95.7 percent).

Our latest report found these seven states have an even higher proportion of low-wage workers (45 percent make less than $15 per an hour) than the rest of the nation and none of them have passed legislation to require employers to provide paid sick days. That these states include six of the nation’s most important Senate races (which could determine which party controls Congress) only raises the stakes.

Candidates and elected officials need to do more than make empty promises about bringing back high-wage jobs–they need to take steps to increase wages now. Progress has stalled on these issues in Congress; it’s well past time for our next Congress and president to push through and find solutions.

As we head to the general election, we need candidates in both parties to put the needs of their constituents first, and support these policies to make a difference in the lives of low-wage workers.

Learn more about how low wage work impacts your state by visiting our new web map series: https://policy-practice.oxfamamerica.org/work/poverty-in-the-us/low-wage-map/

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