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Living wage legislation can give working poor a stake in the boom


I’m writing during the 25th hour of a fast from solid food. At this point I’d eat roadkill passed over a Bic lighter. That’s what my growling stomach says. Actually the hunger isn’t bad, just a slight headache. In 15 hours I’ll eat again, sharing a communal lunch at Albany’s Wilborn Temple.

The experience is part of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition’s annual “Forty Hour Fast for the Common Good.” This year’s focus is on the growing amalgam known as “the working poor”: men and women who often work two jobs but still live below the poverty line, unaffected by Wall Street’s boom.

New York’s minimum wage is a guaranteed poverty wage, $5.15 an hour for most workers. The federal minimum wage is the same. It adds up to $10,000 a year for millions of Americans.

I’ve been told by friends around the country that they hope our fast will one day be a national happening, a yearly prophetic ritual to counter the hegemony of amoral capitalism. I wonder, in the reflection time I schedule for myself during the fast, how we’ll ever take back control of public policy from the corporate and political power brokers who now define wealth as an entitlement and poverty as personal failure.

For me, fasting is about both personal and societal transformation. Gandhi and Cesar Chavez come to mind. Jesus’ fast culminated in his acceptance of a transforming priority that would steer the rest of his life: “To bring good news to the poor ... ”

Today in New York state one of four children and one of six adults live in poverty. This means poor health, poor education, few choices, early death. Very bad news. Yet in over 50 percent of all poor families with children, at least one adult works. Seventy percent of New York’s minimum wage workers are adults, not teenagers getting their first work experience at Burger King.

Albany’s Roman Catholic bishop, Howard Hubbard, spoke at the opening of the fast, which was held on the loading dock of the Regional Food Bank. “Instead of leading to self-reliance for all,” he said, “today’s economic priorities are creating an underclass of overworked and hopeless poor. With all of New York’s affluence, this is utterly wrong.”

Food Bank Director Mark Quandt welcomed us to his warehouse, which supplies hundreds of food banks and soup kitchens. He told us of a recent national survey of food banks that revealed that 40 percent of persons needing their help come from homes where one or more adults works.

By midafternoon I was edgy. Thoughts of snacks were driving me to distraction, but so was the memory of a large graphic that was hung from food cartons at the opening of the fast. It showed that a number of CEO’s, like American Express’ Harvey Golub and GE’s Jack Welch, are making more than $20,000 an hour.

I was motivated to initiate the second defining activity of the 40 hours: contacting elected officials about laws that directly benefit the working poor. Why not go right to the top of New York State’s Senate and Assembly?

After two referrals, an alert young man in Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno’s office asked how he could help. “Could you tell me the senator’s position on the minimum wage?” I asked.

“That’s handled at the federal level,” he said.

“Do you know there are seven states with a minimum wage higher than $5.15 an hour? And that Oregon’s minimum is $6.15?” I asked.

Long pause. “Let me get back to you.”

I was angry. In December New York legislators voted themselves a $22,000 salary increase. The amount jumped to well over $30,000 when leadership stipends were included. Legislators emphasized it was the first increase since 1989, and that the biggest amount was catching up with inflation. Because New York’s minimum wage is not indexed to inflation, however, its real value is lower today than it was during the entire 1961-1984 period.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office got my next call. “My name is ... ” It turns out the woman in his press office graduated from high school with my brother. She didn’t understand my question about living wage legislation, an alternative to minimum wage that is sweeping across the country.

“Did you know that living wage ordinances have been passed in 17 cities and organizing campaigns are underway in two dozen states and municipalities?” She sounded incredulous. “Oakland’s living wage is now $9.25 without benefits, $8.00 an hour with benefits, to increase every year with inflation,” I said.

“I didn’t know that. I thought New York would be leading the way.”

Pressing on, I called Labor Committee Chair Nicholas Spano. “I’m with a coalition that is fasting for 40 hours.”

“Oh, I read about that,” a woman said, kindly.

I continued, “We believe $10,000 a year is an immoral and indecent amount for hard working New Yorkers to try and support a family.”

“I know I couldn’t,” she responded.

“Even two incomes at the minimum wage aren’t enough,” I added. “Well,” she said, “sometimes you have to go under the table.”

No, I thought, it’s time to put higher minimum wage and living wage legislation on the table --; in New York and across the country. Only then can the working poor earn a living, rather than poverty.

Brian O’Shaugnessy is coordinator of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999