“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.” —Economic Policy Institute
By Jim Miller
Since the last time I wrote on this subject in late April, the original proposal of raising the minimum wage to the local Self-Sufficiency Standard of $13.09 with five earned sick days has been significantly lowered in order to address the concerns of opponents.
The current proposal keeps the initial five earned sick days but now only raises the minimum wage to $9.75 in 2015 and $10.50 in 2016 before stopping at $11.50 in 2017 and indexing it to inflation after January of 2019.
Thus, despite the fact that the original proposal fell short of the landmark $15 an hour passed in Seattle and being fought for elsewhere around the country, the City Council still bent over backwards to appease the fears of those clamoring that any increase in the minimum wage would spell disaster for small businesses and the local economy. And they did this even though the preponderance of evidence shows that minimum wage increases elsewhere have actually helped the economy.
The response to this compromise from the Chamber of Commerce and company was to essentially flip the Council the bird and reaffirm their opposition to any measure that moves beyond the state’s minimum wage. As Doug Porter observed at the time, “San Diego’s downtown reactionaries believe they are in control” so nothing other than total surrender will satisfy them.
Hence, rather than entertaining any more compromises with themselves, the Council should hold the line and do the right thing without watering down the proposal any further.
Simply put, it’s time to stand on principle and do the right thing for San Diego’s low-wage workers.
In sum, this very modest measure would:
1) Provide for five earned sick days to nearly half of San Diego’s private sector workers who lack them. Given the fact that restaurant workers and childcare providers are the most likely to lack access to earned sick days, this part of the proposal does not just do right by local workers but helps protect the public’s health by making it less likely economic necessity will force folks who need the money to show up to work sick and share their illnesses with the rest of us. Giving workers earned sick days also means they are far less likely to send sick children to school or stay ill longer for lack of recovery time.
In the final analysis, having earned sick days makes workers more productive, reduces emergency room visits, keeps sick kids out of school, and consequently helps the economy and the community at large.
2) Help raise local workers out of poverty. As I observed back in April:
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 short, San Diegans making the current minimum wage are struggling just to get by. They can’t afford rents, transportation costs, childcare and a host of other basic necessities. Raising the minimum wage to a little bit below the local Self-Sufficiency Standard is the least we can do. It’s not enough, but it is a start.
3) Help the local economy. When low-wage workers get raises, almost all of that money gets pumped back into the economy at local businesses and that increase in consumer spending leads to more tax revenue. That increased tax revenue will provide more funding for infrastructure and other pubic services. In sum, raising the minimum wage is a win-win for all of us.
So who could be against it? The elephant in the room in this debate is the fact that those who are opposed to this imminently reasonable compromise proposal just don’t want to do anything that will help low wage workers because they are fine with the way things are now.
As I’ve argued here before, they are proponents of a new Social Darwinism that ignores the facts and desperately seeks to maintain the economic status quo even as Thomas Piketty’s work has decisively exploded the myth that anything other than crisis or political intervention can address our dangerous level of economic inequality that has much less to do with education, work, and merit than it does with the trend toward patrilineal capitalism.
Indeed, 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.”
Hence if it is true that the best way by which one can judge any community is how it treats its weakest members, then this Council vote is a basic test of the character of San Diego. Are we the kind of city where folks like the students I teach at City College who struggle everyday to feed families and/or put themselves through school matter? Or are we the kind of city where those with the most gold always rule, no matter the merits of the proposal or the clear moral imperative to do right by our fellow citizens on whose labor we all depend to help keep our city running?
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. With 38% of our neighbors having trouble making ends meet, how could we ignore them and refuse to recognize their full humanity? Will we be the kind of community that seeks to raise everyone up or will we continue to be ruled by our meanest impulses and live down to the satiric label of “America’s Finest Tourist Plantation?”
Tonight we will find out.