Monday, July 21, 2014

Income Inequality and the Need For a Living Wage

I recently watched a Last Week Tonight with John Oliver segment where Oliver breaks down income inequality, specifically focusing on the estate tax. Amid the humor Oliver makes some very serious criticisms of the American system and the unwillingness of the United States citizenry to believe income inequality should be a talked about issue. One comment he made was particularly important, "America now has a system where wealth is dispersed as a lottery of birth". With the experience I have had through volunteering in an urban community, I have seen first hand that this is so true. Coming from an upper middle class family with two parents who are lawyers, I won the income "lottery" so to speak. Sure, I have tried hard in school and earned a spot at my university, but I have been afforded so many advantages that people who are born in urban communities in Rochester are not. I have two parents, both of whom work, but always had enough time to encourage me to read, to play, to exercise, to experience and question the world around me. Someone born into a low income family in Rochester is often neglected by their parents during their formative years--not because these parents are bad parents, but simply because these parents are working long hours at one, two, or sometimes even three jobs just to pay the bills. I went to a public high school where the graduation rate is upwards of 90% and we had ample teachers, school supplies, computers, textbooks, and a new school levy was passed almost every year. Students facing public school in Rochester are looking at a graduation rate of around 40%, teachers unequipped to handle the amount of students, a lack of sufficient school supplies and textbooks, and many other challenges that hinder them from even graduating, let alone going to a college like the University of Rochester, despite its close proximity.

So a kid from a low income neighborhood in Rochester is poorly prepared for school, and often drops out. Even if the student doesn't drop out, what is the next step? They can't afford or don't have the means necessary to attend college. They have a high school diploma, but that doesn't cut it in the modern economy. They get a job wherever they can just to sustain basic life necessities. They work hard. Maybe they wait tables, maybe they sweep the halls of the schools they used to attend. Maybe they get a bit of job training and break into the health care aid industry. Regardless of how hard they work doing jobs that need to get done, they don't get paid a wage that allows them to live above the poverty line. Hard working people doing jobs that are necessary for society to function, should get paid a wage that they can actually live on. This is the difference between the minimum wage and a living wage, something that is hard to understand for people who have never had to struggle to pay the bills.

My grandfather was a mail man and my grandmother was a hairdresser who during the holidays worked for Honey Baked Ham (a local company). With their combined incomes, they were able to send three kids to college and support four children. They have finally retired and have settled in a suburban area on the west side of Cleveland. Their four children have all had successful careers that have enabled to them to have families and send their own kids to college. Today,  it would be so much harder to achieve this level of success without a college education. 

People who work in the service field such as my grandparents today don't make nearly enough money to afford them the lifestyle they could have had 40 years ago. The income gap keeps growing and it has reached unparalleled levels of discrepancy between those at the top and bottom. What Oliver points out in his segment is that it is becoming harder and harder for individuals to increase their means. Despite putting in hard work at the jobs that are available to them, people are not able to provide for themselves and their families. Here lies the central fault in the argument that people who live below the poverty line should just "work harder" to achieve more: we need people work at gas stations, to work in super markets, to cut our hair, to clean our houses. It is not relevant to say that people should just find be better jobs, because if they did, there would be no one to do other essential jobs that get paid low wages. This again, is the concept of a living wage. 

Income inequality is a real problem. It is not class warfare. It is simply showing that we are increasingly becoming a country of haves and have nots, even though there are hard working people who fall into the have not category. I will conclude this with one relevant anecdote. The people who are hesitant to talk about income inequality are often people that feel people on welfare are just using the government coffers to not work. I recently had an experience with a woman who came into the organization that I work for with a problem that disproves that theory. She had just gotten a new job, but the employer didn't provide health insurance because it was a temp agency, and she had chronic health issues. With the job, she made too much money to go on welfare and collect Medicaid funding. She was faced with the question of whether to be employed and not be able to pay medical bills, or to stay unemployed and be eligible for Medicaid. She didn't want to take money from the government, but in order to have access to medical care she had to be unemployed and collect Medicaid. What would you say to that woman--too bad? Sorry, your low wages that don't pay your bills are just going to have to cut it because Medicaid is a handout? We need to start taking steps to ensure that people who do important jobs are actually able to provide for themselves and their family. I think establishing a living wage will set us on the right track to solving that problem and decreasing income inequality. 

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