Driving taxi in San Francisco helped me see why everyone will benefit when we see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job. While earning an adequate, reliable income with part-time cab driving, I discovered firsthand the value of middle-class comforts and realized more clearly how a foundation of economic security will greatly improve the quality of life in the United States.
My family was working poor. In college, I wrote checks not knowing if my mother had deposited enough money to cover them. As an adult, I dedicated my life to community organizing, worked on poverty-level wages, and lived in low-income communities. I got to know that most poor people are good people who will work hard if given the chance. From direct experience, I came to better understand the frustration, resentment, anger, and social discord that results from lack of economic opportunity.
Eventually it got to me. I felt I was hitting my head against the wall, making little progress, and decided to save some money, get rid of most of my possessions, and take a long break to wander on my motorcycle. I ended up on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, living in a thatch hut with a dirt poor family with nine children.
Several other extremely poor families lived within earshot. One day I realized I rarely heard anger or crying. The contrast with San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood where I had been living was dramatic. It struck me that the problem is not poverty. The problem is the lack of economic opportunity in the midst of tremendous wealth.
So long as federal policies continue to cause massive unemployment, stagnant wages, and widespread poverty while enabling the wealthy to enhance their wealth, people trying to alleviate suffering in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin will be flooded with human misery. These reflections led me to Washington, DC to work on national economic policy in order to address root causes.
My first step was to walk into the social action office of the national Methodist Church, where I offered my services as a volunteer. The director suggested that I research how to end poverty. I presented the results of my research in an article in Christian Social Action and at a seminar at the Institute for Policy Studies. These reports were well received and praised from the pulpit by Bill Holmes, my minister at Metropolitan Memorial, the national Methodist Church, with Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in the congregation.
Heartened by this response, I returned to San Francisco, initiated the year-long Solutions to Poverty Workshop. We then convened the Antipoverty Congress to consider the ten-point program we developed, which detailed how to end poverty and how to pay for it. The Congress adopted our program and formed the Campaign to Abolish Poverty, which persuaded Congressman Ron Dellums to introduce the Living Wage Jobs For All Act. I then withdrew from activism to write Economic Security for All: How to End Poverty in the United States, a 320-page book.
But the time was not ripe. The results were meager. Soon thereafter I decided to take a break from activism and convened a series of “strategy workshops” to evaluate how the progressive movement might be more effective. Nevertheless, I continued to monitor developments concerning the economic-security issue, hoping that opportunities would emerge.
Then a few weeks ago I read “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” which reported that 68% of the general public in the United States believe “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job” and 78% believe the minimum wage should be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below [the] official poverty line.”
This report was not news to me. I already knew that.
But two things were different. First, the authors used terms that were especially well chosen. They asked respondents if they believe that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job,” That phrase, “see to it,” affirms alternatives to government-funded jobs. If private businesses created enough jobs, then there would be less need for publicly funded jobs. But when that doesn’t happen, as a last resort the “government in Washington” is obligated to ramp up funding for meaningful, living-wage public-service jobs. That way of framing the issue is both more precise and more likely to meet with public approval.
If our society assured every American the means to live decently, government action would not be needed. If Pope Francis prompts a widespread moral renewal and the rich and powerful become less greedy and power hungry, our situation will be much different. But most Americans either struggle to make ends meet or live in poverty, and no relief is in sight. Given this reality, our government must help us fulfill our moral responsibility to prevent needless suffering. The American people must unite and insist that the federal government take effective action.
Second, our situation has changed. The middle class is shrinking and average wages are stagnant. It’s no longer just a matter of “helping the poor.” Most of us are in the same boat now. The only solution is to pull together. And considerable “populist” pressure seems to be building.
These factors prompted me to explore re-engaging directly with the economic-security issue. Soon, with valuable assistance and encouragement from first the Internet strategist Michael Stein and then the economist Dean Baker, I decided to initiate the Guarantee Living-Wage Jobs Campaign.
Though necessary as stop-gap measures, unemployment insurance and food stamps are no real solution. A better approach is to see to it that anyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job.
When we achieve full employment, those who are worried about food stamps fostering dependency can rest assured that we are supporting self-determination.
Business owners will benefit from a more prosperous economy.
Most workers will benefit from:
• Higher wages (because employers will pay more to keep trained employees).
• Being treated with more respect by employers (because workers will have more choices).
• Having more leisure time to relax with their families and enjoy their lives.
• Being able to engage more in their community.
Everyone will benefit from living in a more harmonious, safer society.
And people living in poverty will lift themselves out of poverty, which will greatly improve the quality of their lives.
In short, everyone will be better able to enjoy life, fulfill their potential, be true to who they really are, and participate fully in society.
Fortunately, assuring everyone a living-wage job opportunity is a simple matter. We can do it easily, and there is no good reason not to do it.
As citizens, we need not prescribe precisely how the federal government should achieve full employment. The experts and the policy makers can do that. They managed to save Wall Street. Surely they can figure out how to assure every American a living-wage job opportunity. Our job is to determine if Congress has accomplished that goal and keep pushing until it does.
We can, however, outline some options. The federal government could:
• Require paid sick time, paid family leave, and four weeks of paid vacation, as do all wealthy countries except the United States, which would lead businesses to hire more workers.
• Enable the working poor to lift themselves out of poverty by increasing the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit as necessary to assure that households earn a living wage.
• Send funds to local governments to hire public-service workers to meet needs that are currently being neglected. Those needs include teachers’ assistants, in-home caregiving, nursing home staff, child care workers, park and recreation staff, substance abuse counselors, neighborhood center staff, cultural enrichment, conservation measures, park improvements, and environmental cleanup. By steadily increasing such funding as needed, we could achieve full employment.
By relying on revenue sharing with local governments, we could minimize problems associated with “big government.” Citizens can impact City Hall more easily than they can the federal government.
Without increasing income and payroll tax rates, we could initially fund a jobs program with deficit-neutral options such as:
• A small tax on financial transactions that would discourage unproductive, destabilizing speculation and generate $100 billion or more.
• Reducing wasteful military spending that could free up $60 billion per year or more. •
If more funds were still needed, we could fund more public jobs with: 1) revenues generated by the boost to the economy that would result from this jobs program, and; 2) money that would be available from reduced spending on unemployment insurance and food stamps. Those measures would likely be sufficient to generate enough funding, but another option would be to increase taxes on the top 1%.
Clearly lack of revenue is no reason to back away from guaranteeing living-wage job opportunities. We have more than enough money.
The standard argument against full employment has been that it would cause excessive inflation. But partly due to global competition, it’s unclear how much inflationary pressure would result. Since 1997 inflation has not been a problem, even when the unemployment rate was below 5%.
Steadily increasing federal revenue-sharing for public jobs would enable the whole country to monitor this issue. Policies about inflation need to be made openly following full discussion. What is worse? Stagnant wages for the middle class, severe poverty, and widespread unemployment? Or modest inflation?
In Getting Back to Full Employment, Baker and his co-author Jared Bernstein argue that if and when inflation became a serious problem, we could deal with it then. They write, “‘It seems far better to take the risk of a short period with rising inflation than maintaining a higher-than-necessary level of unemployment…. Few would agree that it is appropriate to keep millions out of work and deny wage growth to tens of millions simply to reduce the risk of modestly higher inflation.”
The issues are clear. We need a grassroots movement to mobilize powerful, popular pressure on Washington to honor the will of the people and establish fundamental economic security. So please consider signing the Guarantee Living-Wage Jobs Petition that is addressed to “activist organizations” and reads “We urge you to work together to persuade the government in Washington to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job.”
Let’s build on the support we already have, develop a grassroots movement to guarantee living-wage job opportunities, and enable the United States to finally live up to its stated ideals, truly “promote the general welfare,” and support “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Please sign our petition and we’ll keep you informed about efforts to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a living-wage job.
Wade Lee Hudson has been an activist, community organizer, and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has lived since 1962. He can be reached at wade[AT]wadehudson[DOT]net. On Twitter: @LivingWageJobs