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Monday, October 22, 2012

Wireman: "Who is the 47%

Who will you see today who is part of the 47 percent? Child care workers, retail sales people, nursing aides, janitors, office clerks and teacher assistants all may be “takers” who need food stamps and other safety net programs. Fifty percent of the fastest growing jobs fall into 37 occupations. The median wages in 11 of them are so low a worker in a three-person family would qualify for food stamps. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is concerned that he cannot convince the 47 percent who do not pay federal income taxes to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is concerned about a “moral tipping point” and wants to “help them get jobs so they can get a good paycheck so they’re good taxpayers.” Millions now have jobs and are paying Social Security taxes, sales and other taxes. But they do not get a good paycheck. Wider Opportunities for Women developed a self-sufficiency standard that enables a family to live without depending on government programs or charity. It provides funds for basic needs: food, health care, child care, and a car for commuting to work and one shopping trip a week. No funds are budgeted for retirement, entertainment or ANY food prepared outside the home. This budget is about twice that in the federal poverty guidelines. To get a full picture of workers’ situations, it is necessary to look at the extent and range of jobs that fail to provide livable salaries. The nation’s second-fastest-growing occupation is retail salesperson. The minimum wage does not support even the worker at the self-sufficiency standard, $21,600 or $10.40 an hour for one person in 2010. Other jobs that fail to provide even the worker a self-sufficiency wage are: child care workers, cashiers, personal care and home-health aides, and those who both prepare and serve food, including fast food. People making enough to support themselves but no one else are janitors and cleaners, teacher assistants, landscaping workers, laborers, security guards, nursing aides, orderlies, receptionists, office clerks and medical assistants. To support a spouse or a child, but not both, requires $29,100 or $14 an hour. This means construction laborers, medical secretaries, accounting and auditing clerks, maintenance and repair workers, and first-line supervisors of retail sales workers. To support a three-person family, a worker needs to make $36,600 or almost $18 an hour. How do these workers survive? Many receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, which sends families money to supplement their low wages. This is one of the programs likely to be cut in Republican tax plans. Many manage by having both parents work, possible because they get subsidized child care and a child care deduction on their federal income taxes. Both may be cut along with food stamps. As Romney said, if someone has a heart attack, we do provide for them in the emergency room. By law, the emergency room must treat them. But they are not required to provide the follow-up care that may be needed. Millions now obtain it through Medicare or Medicaid, both likely to be changed under Republican approaches. Republican candidates are concerned that these everyday workers feel like victims and that using government programs will foster dependency. I find these workers competent, helpful and cheerful. However, while they may not feel like victims, they have been victimized by the shift in the wage structure over recent decades. After World War II productivity doubled, and wages doubled. Since the 1970s, productivity has continued to rise but two-thirds of the increase in profits has gone to CEOs and the stock market. Eighty percent of American workers are in manufacturing or nonsupervisory service jobs. Their wages have remained flat or even gone down for decades. Business owners have lowered wages by outsourcing jobs and by using threats to pressure workers to accept lower salaries. Wages have also suffered from the decline of labor unions pushing for higher wages and benefits and the failure of Congress to adjust the minimum wage to keep up with inflation. The minimum wage was at its highest in 1968. If the current $7.25 was corrected for inflation, it would be $10.55. That’s an extra $6,000 a year, a fortune for someone making $15,000. Contrary to many views, minimum wage workers are not primarily young people making spending money but adults supporting families or supplementing the family budget. When he was governor, Romney vetoed an increase in the Massachusetts minimum wage to $8 an hour. Ryan wants to cut government programs “to ensure that America’s safety net does not become a hammock that lulls able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” Just remember the next time someone hands you a hamburger or helps you in a store that they are struggling, not because of a low wage, but because they have to reach up from their hammock. Peggy Wireman, Monona, holds a doctorate in sociology and consults on community and economic development. She blogs at http://connectingdots.us/?page_id=2 connectingdots.us/. Follow her on Twitter @PeggyWireman. Read more: http://host.madison.com/news/opinion/column/peggy-wireman-low-wages-keep-many-hard-workers-in-the/article_f309c666-1a28-11e2-8264-0019bb2963f4.html#ixzz2A2Gfmuby

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