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economic justice

End Poverty by Supporting a Living Wage

We need a constitutional amendment to guarrantee everyone a living wage job.
Published on Tuesday, December 30, 2003 by CommonDreams.org

More than 50 cities nationwide have passed living wage ordinances demanding adequate pay, and the movement is gaining momentum at many levels of society, from grassroots organizations to high-level policymakers. A Constitutional amendment mandating a living wage would change the landscape of the American workforce forever, providing a legal baseline for workers everywhere that ensures fair pay from the highest law of the land.

In his book, 'Ending Poverty As We Know It' law professor and anti-poverty activist Bill Quigley suggests that an amendment to the Constitution would give the movement for a living wage the nudge it needs toward legitimacy and reality.

Quigley, a professor at the Loyola University law school in New Orleans and director of the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center, believes that every American who desires work should have the Constitutionally protected right to a job, and moreover that said job should pay a wage that allows that person to live in dignity and provide for his or her family adequately.

In recent years, several authors have offered perspectives on the job crisis in the United States. In one chapter of 'Fast Food Nation' Eric Schlosser detailed the exploitation of youth in the fast food industry, working longer hours after clocking out, thus making them ineligible for overtime pay as well as health and 401k benefits. Barbara Ehrenreich writes in 'Nickel and Dimed' about her experiment of living the perspective of the working poor, those people with full-time employment who still cannot make ends meet.

Clearly a palpable issue, minimum wage is not enough to support a family and live with dignity, and this financial crunch is reflected in the most recent Census Bureau surveys.

Nearly 1.7 million more people are living in poverty this year, totaling 34.6 million people in the United States and almost a third of who are children. The median household income fell by 3.4 percent, and unemployment grew, meaning that last year 750,000 jobs were lost. Moreover, declining federal income taxes barely impacted household incomes. Men's salaries increased while women were making only 77 cents to every male-earned dollar, meaning that single, working moms are still having to make do with less.

According to Quigley these figures only show part of the problem. Because the government poverty standards are so low, only the poorest of the poor are counted in the census studies. Many people, including those on the welfare to work programs, are not netted in those figures, making the statistics unrepresentatively low. Quigley demonstrates that the government's official poverty incomes are actually at desperation levels, especially for families.

In his law classes, his students explore the myths and realities of work and poverty, examining prejudices and attitudes toward the unemployed. Being raised in a society that only uses the stick in the 'carrot and stick framework, young people especially see the penalties of poverty but not realistic incentives to end this problem. As in other domains of American life, like healthcare, the issue of poverty relies heavily on intervention rather than prevention. Bailout methods like welfare and food stamps become a way of life rather than a transitional aide. Compassion yields to resentment as working Americans view their fellow citizens as parasites rather than potential contributors.

So if America is the land of opportunity, a country where pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is the unofficial motto, why is it such hard work to get a job?

One reason is that incidental costs often impede the process of getting a job, says Quigley. For many people in the U.S., access to getting a job means having childcare and a reliable means of transportation. Many people rely on family, neighbors and religious communities for these necessities until their generosity or capacity runs out. Social service and charity organizations are making up for what individuals themselves cannot.

In addition to the merits of getting Americans working are all of the tertiary concerns that may also find improvement if a living wage amendment were passed. For example, lack of parental involvement is often blamed for social problems juvenile delinquency, academic disinterest and drug use. If parents weren't working several jobs, they might have more time to be available for their families and important events like parent-teacher conferences at school, as well as becoming more informed voters and active citizens.

These temporary solutions must be replaced with a more permanent solution, however. Bill Quigley believes that the problem of poverty in the U.S. can best be addressed through a federal Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to work for all Americans. With historical precedence on his side for accomplishing this goal, Quigley cites programs like the various iterations of the New Deal that provided stable work for hundreds of thousands of Americans after the Great Depression.

Quigley believes that the Constitution is not a dead document, but rather a living idea that stays healthy by creating amendments that respond to the pressing social, economic and political needs of the era. This opportunity is a practical exercise in civic responsibility that can engage citizens' participation at the local and state level, as well as challenge the federal government to truly respond to its constituents' needs.

The 2004 Democratic Presidential hopefuls would do well to read this book and integrate its ideas into their platforms. By adopting Bill Quigley's proposal, any candidate could present a real challenge to the current administration's positive spin on a failing economy and give American citizens a real, workable goal toward achieving a fair wage in our country.

Leah C. Wells is a freelance journalist and coordinator of the U.S. campaign for peace education, www.PeaceEd.org. She may be reached at  leah@peaceed.org.

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