Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

EDITORIAL >> Time to raise minimum pay

Talk about the Spirit of Christmas and family values. A coalition of church, union and community leaders calling itself Give Arkansans a Raise Now announced Monday that it would try to offer voters a chance to amend the state Consti-tution to guarantee the poorest Arkansas workers a halfway-livable income.

It is long overdue, and the perfect time to begin such a labor is Christmas, the one period of our sinful years in which we strive to live by the injunctions of the Prince of Peace. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers ...

The amendment would raise the minimum wage in Arkansas from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour and thereafter raise it automatically in consonance with the Consumer Price Index. The group will have to get the signatures of more than 80,000 Arkansas voters to get the proposition on the 2006 general-election ballot. That is a physically daunting task, but it should be no political problem. A poll shows that roughly 87 percent of Arkansans support the idea. That will change, no doubt, when the opposition ads pose the ruin of the state’s economy if voters ratify it but Arkansas voters have nearly always embraced proposals that undergird the economic security of workers and their families, starting with child labor laws and workers compensation. It will be no different this time.

Even at $6.15 an hour, the neediest workers will be far off the pace of previous generations. American hourly wages adjusted for inflation have been falling for 30 years, most dramatically since 2000. The minimum wage has been flat at $5.15 an hour since 1997. Congress and the Bush administration seem adamant that it never be raised again at the federal level. Raising the lowest wages could affect profit margins, executive bonuses and shareholder values. The Arkan-sas Legislature early this year emasculated a bill that would have raised the floor for Arkan-sas workers. Arkansas voters, we suspect, will not be so flinthearted.

The president of the Ark-ansas State Chamber of Commerce implied that the organization would not oppose the proposal if it gets on the ballot, but we have a hunch that will change. He said it would not affect many Arkansans because the vast majority of businesses pay more than $6.15 to all their employees.

True, it is not a large share of the workforce, but raising the incomes of the 127,000 workers who are at the floor now is not an insignificant step for the state and certainly not for them. They are the workers who almost certainly have no employer health insurance and no pension plan, and those most vulnerable to retail price hikes, big leaps in fuel costs and economic dislocation. They have some of the most dangerous and degrading day-to-day jobs. They are less likely to get paid vacations, paid holidays and sick and family leave.

“We live in a great nation,” said Rev. Stephen Copley, senior pastor of North Little Rock First United Methodist Church and chair of Give Arkansans a Raise Now. “Folks should not work hard, play by the rules and live in poverty.”
They would still live in poverty if the proposal is ratified, but not quite so deeply as now.

Next year, the campaign against the amendment will say that the beneficiaries would merely be youngsters in part-time jobs, mainly fast-food restaurants, who are on their way up the economic ladder anyway. That has been the battle cry in every minimum-wage effort in Congress for 50 years but it does not fly.

It is a myth. Economics professors Sheldon Danziger of the University of Michigan and Peter Gottschalk of Boston College found that most low-wage workers no longer move up to the middle class. About half of people whose family income ranked them in the bottom fifth of the country in 1968 were still there in 1991. Of those who did move up, 75 percent were still well below the median income. The U.S. economy no longer provides much mobility for low-income workers.

They are not only restaurant workers but childcare-givers, security guards, nursing-home and hospital orderlies, teachers’ assistants, retail clerks, poultry line workers and call-center employees.

We will hear the familiar argument that raising the minimum wage is bad for the poor because employers will just make up the difference by reducing the number of jobs. But minimum-wage increases have nearly always led to greater job creation, not less. Wasn’t that a message of the Sermon on the Mount? There are rewards for doing for the least of those among us.

Sign a petition if you find one.