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Greed lives.

Not only does The Wall Street Journal oppose increasing the minimum wage, the Journal's editors recently editorialized against the whole concept of a minimum wage, calling it "a crackpot idea." Why? Because they are concerned about the poor, of course: "We believe the minimum wage hurts poor people, killing jobs on the first rung of the career ladder for the most vulnerable members of society."

Never mind that the value of the minimum wage, currently $4.25 an hour, has been shrinking steadily for forty years, and is now worth eighty-eight cents an hour less than in 1956.

Never mind that wages and standards of living for working-class Americans have declined disastrously over the last two decades.

The Journal likes to call people at the bottom of the economy "beginning workers"--ignoring the reality that many of those who work at low-wage, dead-end jobs are not moving up.

The Wall Street Journal would like its readers to think that the interests of working people and the interests of millionaires are one and the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, when U.S. workers' wages increased by 1 percent in the first quarter of this year--the sharpest increase they've seen since 1991--economists on Wall Street began to worry.

"Analysts say it has become increasingly clear that the economy has pulled back from what many regarded last winter as the brink of recession," The New York Times reported. "But in the `good news equals bad news' environment that often prevails on Wall Street, some economists have begun to worry that faster growth and higher incomes might rekindle inflation."

In other words, the interests of the wealthy run counter to the interests of most working Americans. The fact that there are distinct economic classes in America with opposing economic interests is not exactly breaking news. But it isn't just cranky conservative editors who won't admit it.

During the primaries, the only Presidential candidate to raise the issue of economic inequality was rightwing nutball Pat Buchanan, and it made him very popular. "He was pointing out the obvious, number-one fact in America, which is declining wages and living standards for the vast majority of people in this country," says political essayist Barbara Ehrenreich. "It's an amazing thing to keep quiet."

Yet up until recently, when the Democrats noticed that Buchanan's economic populism did well in the polls, politicians of both parties were noticeably mute about the growing number of Americans confronting impoverishment.

According to David Rosenbaum of The New York Times, during 1993 and 1994, when the Democrats controlled Congress, President Clinton never once made a public statement supporting an increase in the minimum wage. Nor did the Congressional Democrats hold a single hearing on the minimum wage during those two years.

Now, all of a sudden, the issue is hot.

The increase in the minimum wage proposed by the Democrats in Congress is long overdue. At ninety cents an hour, spread over the next two years, it would put American workers a whopping two cents ahead of where they were forty years ago.

We need a much more comprehensive approach to the growing problem of poverty in the United States. Even as the minimum-wage debate inches forward, we are rapidly moving backward on other fronts.

Nowhere is the government's dangerously reactionary attitude toward the poor more evident than in the debate about welfare reform.

In Wisconsin, Governor Tommy Thompson recently signed legislation to abolish AFDC altogether by the fall of 1997. The Wisconsin plan is among fifteen state proposals awaiting federal waivers to set time limits on AFDC. President Clinton has been all too willing to sign waivers endorsing draconian welfare-reform experiments. The President himself has proposed a lifetime limit on welfare of five years, and he is running television spots that advertise his toughness on the issue, saying that all welfare recipients must be put to work.

Welfare-reform rhetoric emanating from the White House and state houses promotes the idea that AFDC recipients are a drain on taxpayers. It pits the working poor against people who collect AFDC, ignoring the fact that those two groups overlap. More than two-thirds of AFDC recipients have spent plenty of time working. The problem is that they work for low wages with no benefits, and cycle in and out of the labor market. Since they are very poor and have no health insurance, they are extremely vulnerable. When a child gets sick, or a car breaks down, or another emergency crops up, people who work in low-wage, service-sector jobs often fall into the government safety net. Instead of addressing the problems of a labor market that leaves people in such desperate straits, politicians of both parties are currently contemplating doing away with the net altogether.

The bipartisan National Governor's Association proposal on welfare reform would do away with the federal guarantee of support for poor families, and would provide money for public assistance to states in the form of block grants. The states could then administer the money however they saw fit--even if that means denying aid to people who desperately need it.

If President Clinton signs block-grant legislation, which he seems likely to do, it will revoke the guarantee that poor families in America won't starve.

Child poverty, homelessness, and other social ills associated with economic neglect are sure to get worse unless we address the political climate that brought us to this terrible point. We must push for recognition that low-wage workers, welfare recipients, and all of us who want a humane society share the same interests. We must insist not only on decent pay, but on universal health care, universal access to education and training for family-supporting jobs, and a higher minimum standard of compassion. Otherwise, the politics of greed will rule the day.
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Title Annotation:increase in minimum wage
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jun 1, 1996
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