By Jim Miller
These are still tough times for most working people in the United States. We are in the midst of a new Gilded Age of historic economic inequality. The rich are carving out a bigger slice of the pie at the expense of nearly everyone else in America. As I noted in my column last week, corporate profits are at their highest level in 85 years and employee compensation is at the lowest level it has been in 65 years.
And this is happening despite the fact that the average American worker is more educated and more productive than ever before. The result of all this is a declining middle class, economic instability, and the hijacking of our democracy by moneyed interests.
Here in San Diego, we have one of the highest costs of living in the United States, and the picture for workers at the bottom end of the economic spectrum is grim. More than 300,000 households in our city have incomes too low to meet basic expenses, and our tourism industry has the largest number of employees with incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard with more than half of those workers failing to make ends meet.
And things are getting worse. As the Center on Policy Initiatives has noted in their new report, “Making Ends Meet: When Wages Fail to Meet Basic Costs of Living in San Diego County,” the economic crisis is not over for many of our neighbors:
“the Great Recession continues for many San Diegans. The share of households living below the Self-Sufficiency Standard has grown from 30% in pre-recession 2007 to 38% in 2012, the most recent year for which all data are available. That’s an increase of 71,472 households struggling to get by.”
In response to this, the San Diego City Council has commendably brought forth the issue of raising the minimum wage locally to the Self-Sufficiency Standard of $13.09 an hour and requiring five earned sick days for all San Diego workers. This measure, when fully implemented, would give access to earned sick days to 260,000 San Diegans, increase the wages of 200,000 workers, and put a total of $580 million into the pockets of low income workers who would then turn around and put that money back into the local economy.
This week the City Council will consider either passing an earned sick day/minimum wage ordinance or putting an initiative on the ballot for next November. Whichever course they take, this is a long overdue step in the direction of promoting a modest amount of economic fairness in San Diego. Let’s hope the Council listens to the voices of those who are struggling to get by and does the right thing despite the howls of protest sure to come from all the usual suspects on the right and perhaps even some shortsighted folks in other quarters.
The predictable response to this from the right and the Chamber of Commerce crew has been the usual hysteria about how slightly raising the floor for San Diego’s workers will destroy our city’s economic competitiveness and kill jobs.
The problem with this is that there is no evidence to support it. In fact, the closest comparison one might draw is to San Jose’s recent minimum wage increase where, a year after its passage, the unemployment rate has actually declined and the world as we know it has not ended because workers can pay their rent and bills more easily and have more money to spend at local businesses.
Despite the lack of evidence for the case against the minimum wage, the editorial page of UT-San Diego has been doing the journalistic equivalent of stamping its feet ever since the issue was raised. In response to City Council President Todd Gloria’s news conference announcing the details of the Council’s minimum wage push they decried an “Alarming start to a crucial debate” saying that it revealed, “the same government-centric, union-centric, regulation-centric playbook that has given the Golden State by far the highest poverty rate in the nation and the second-highest rate of job-seekers unable to find full-time work”.
Of course they cite no evidence of how government, unions, and regulations have caused poverty because there is none.
A week or so before this in “Income Inequality, the Fix that Doesn’t Fix Anything,” UT-SD weighed in with yet more of their usual cant: “as this editorial board has argued many times, increasing the minimum wage does not address the root problem of low-income workers — the lack of education, training and job skills that will forever keep them on the low rungs of the economic ladder.”
Note the word “forever.”
Before this gem of wisdom, back in March, the visionaries at the UT-SD penned “Minimum Wage Hike and Income Inequality: That’s All You’ve Got,”where they argued that“[t]he best way to minimize the disruption this inexorable change creates is by maximizing the number of people with job skills not diminished by ‘creative destruction’” thus “computer science” and “practical training” was in order for America’s allegedly undereducated, unskilled workers.
This was preceded in January by their magnum opus, “Income Inequality: the 15% vs. the 85%” where the mouthpiece of Manchester made a point to dismiss the entire national dialogue about economic inequality as “simplistic clichés that ignore broad historical developments in favor of Occupy-style bashing of the allegedly evil ‘1 percent.’” We may have the “perception that the economy is rigged to favor the haves” but “[t]he reality is we can’t change this dynamic.” What we can do to make this inevitable fact of life “more bearable,” however, is address the skills gap by offering more computer science courses in our schools so the toiling masses have better “21st century job skills.”
The key thing to underline here is the UT-SD’s belief that the issue of inequality is not even really worthy of debate because, in their estimation, “the reality is we can’t change this dynamic.” Thus all they have at their disposal to address the growing and dangerous level of structural inequality in our society is the pathetic assertion that we all just need to take computer science courses and get more practical skills.
But really, the problem of inequality, following the UT-SD line, is the fault of workers themselves and the education system that has failed to give the worthy among us practical skills
One might be tempted to engage them in a more thorough debate over the questionable merits of their argument that we need to transform our entire education system into a kind of reductionist job training program, but ultimately even their posturing on the education issue is really just a feeble smoke screen that fails to conceal that, at base, the UT-SD and their allies at the Chamber and on the right don’t really have a problem with economic inequality, they have a problem with those who think it is something needs to be addressed.
Welcome to the new social Darwinism minus the noblesse oblige of Andrew Carnegie who at least gave a nod to the rights of labor.
It is worth observing, however, that the notion at the core of the argument that workers are falling behind because they lack education and/or are less productive flies in the face of the facts that suggest quite the opposite. As the Economic Policy Institute recently pointed out, “The bottom line is that the minimum wage in 2013 is far less now than it was in 1968 despite the economy’s productivity more than doubling, and low-wage workers attaining far more education.”
One might recommend that the opponents of the government addressing the issue of low wages read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but his argument that our growing inequality increasingly has less to do with merit and more to do with the trend toward patrilineal capitalism might make their heads explode. The real problem that the new Social Darwinists refuse to acknowledge is not that workers are unskilled or lazy but that employers have stopped sharing the gains of the profits produced by their workers’ labor.
One way to address this is to raise the minimum wage. This won’t be a game changer or reverse the larger ominous trends in our country in a big way, but it will provide for a bit more fairness in our local economy. It will do some real, concrete good for working people in San Diego.
Those who choose to demagogue against such a modest and eminently reasonable course of action are very much on the wrong side of history.
So are the folks proposing a bogus minimum wage initiative to compete with the City Council’s measure that would exempt more than 93% of local businesses from paying their workers a fair wage. They think they can trick the public with another boatload of B.S. about the perils of providing a basic self-sufficiency wage. Nothing will stop them from shamelessly lying as they always do, but we can be smart enough to not get fooled this time around.
So if you see petition gatherers peddling this snake oil popping up around town, you should decline to sign.
Where I work at San Diego City College, I see the high cost of low wages every day as many of my students who are the working poor struggle to feed their families and/or put themselves through school.
I rarely hear them complain, but I do see folks drop out and/or compromise the quality of their educations for economic reasons—not because they don’t want to get “the right skills,” but because they suddenly have to cover for lost childcare, care for a sick loved one, take another job to cover the rent, don’t have enough money to pay for books, or have to deal with one of a myriad of other problems that those at the top of our economic spectrum have trouble imagining. This is particularly true for working women and poor people of color and it’s not just unfortunate, it’s morally wrong.
The clear and simple truth is that with 38% of our neighbors having trouble making ends meet, it’s time that San Diego got a raise. Nobody who works full-time should have to struggle to provide for basic necessities or be forced to go to work when they are too sick to be there. It’s time to do the right thing and raise everybody up.