Politics of Poverty

Diverse voices call for a new agenda for America’s working poor

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André Butler, who struggles to get by on low wages as a banquet server in Philadephia, PA, spoke eloquently at the Oxfam event on June 22, 2016 about challenges facing workers in the hospitality industry. Also speaking were (l to r) David Cooper, Sarah Fleisch Fink, and Emily Chatterjee. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

Hard work should pay off. But for millions of workers in the US, it hardly pays the bills. We’re amplifying voices of hard-working people who are demanding real change.

In June, Oxfam and the Economic Policy Institute rolled out a new project that laid out an agenda to give America’s working poor a raise. The interactive map and report, Few Rewards, explored the challenges facing the millions of workers earning under $15 an hour, and made recommendations for policy changes:

  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).

The day of the publication, Oxfam hosted an event on Capitol Hill and held a conference call for media. We heard great stories and information from a variety of experts, elected leaders, and workers.

Here are some of the outstanding bits:

US Senator Sherrod Brown (OH)

We used to have a social compact in this country: if you put in the hours, worked hard, played by rules, you could do well. You could put dinner on the table, send your daughters to college, save for retirement. Not anymore. We need to restore equity and hope for workers who are still holding up their end of the bargain.

We can restore a strong middle class, and keep in mind: When the middle class does well, the rich do very very well, and the poor have hope.

Emily Chatterjee, Senior Counsel, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

I was struck by the fact that the US has the highest proportion of low-wage jobs of any rich country in the world.

Civil and human rights have long been inextricably linked to economic security. When nearly half the workforce today is in jobs paying under $15 an hour, and job growth is projected to be concentrated in low-wage jobs, coupled with long-term wage stagnation, there is a real concern about the creation of a permanent underclass. And it is composed of a majority of people of color.

Source: Oxfam America
Source: Oxfam America

André Butler, banquet server from Philadelphia, PA, who earns $8 to $9 an hour

If your employer is paying you the minimum wage, it means they’d pay you less if they could. The minimum wage is a vital way to make sure employers pay enough for people to survive.

I encourage everyone to look at the table of the top ten occupations in the US in the report: the top four jobs pay well below $15 an hour. At the top are 4.6 million retail salespeople making a median hourly wage of $10.47, followed by 3.5 million cashiers making $9.82, and 3.2 million food prep and serving workers making $9.09. That’s over 11 million workers making poverty wages.

Low-wage workers do the work that keeps the economy going: building, cooking, cleaning, serving. Each one of us encounters these workers every day: they make our coffee, sell us our lunches, care for our children and elderly, check us out at the drugstore.

We need to provide these workers with a living wage – and to make sure it has provisions to adjust every year, as the cost of living goes up. Wages need to keep pace with the costs of living; how is it fair if they don’t?

Sarah Fleisch Fink, Senior Policy Counsel, National Partnership for Women & Families

Today, women make up nearly half of the US workforce, and mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners in more than 40 percent of families. At the same time, women most often continue to be the primary caregivers for children, as well as for older parents. Women are therefore particularly impacted by a lack of policies like a living wage, overtime protections and paid sick days.

At least 43 million workers cannot earn a single paid sick day, and female dominated jobs, such as those in service industries, are some of the least likely to offer paid sick time. Not having access to paid sick days has a real effect on a family’s ability to make ends meet. For the typical family without paid sick days, for example, taking just 3.5 sick days without pay means losing an entire month’s worth of groceries. For single-parent families, which are usually headed by women, the consequences are even more dire.

David Cooper, Senior Economic Analyst, Economic Policy institute

For the past 40 years, the dominant economic philosophy was the notion that government and policy should do nothing to moderate business and the market — businesses and corporations should be left to their own devices. If the outcome is more wealth for a small number of people at the top and more working families struggling to get by, that’s just the way of the world.

Now, most of us realize that, in fact, we need sensible government policies to ensure that fair day’s work gets a fair day’s pay, that workers can take time off when they’re sick, and get overtime when they have to work long hours.

Jeffrey Buchanan, Senior Domestic Policy Advisor, Oxfam

People haven’t stopped working hard in this country–it’s just that the rules have changed underneath them. No matter how hard you work, how many hours you put in, you can’t thrive on $7.25 an hour. Even at 60 hours a week, it is literally a poverty wage for a family.

No wonder people are angry and frustrated. They see executive compensation soaring, while they watch their own wages stagnate and even decline in real value.

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