Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Not much to cheer about


OUR OPINION: Inequality, low wages hurting labor force

Labor Day is traditionally set aside to pay tribute to workers and their invaluable contributions to the nation’s economy and the American way of life. American workers remain the most productive labor force on the planet.

But it seems particularly cruel on this Labor Day to celebrate workers yet at the same time watch helplessly as the middle and lower classes fall further behind economically.

American workers haven’t had a lot to cheer about in recent years. Income inequality, unemployment and a corrosive recession have combined to demoralize a large segment of the working population, sapping the nation’s vitality at a time when the forces of global competition present a stern challenge.

The unemployment rate stands at 7.4 percent across the nation, 7.1 percent in Florida. Both of these are significant improvements over the depths of the recession, but progress has been slow and uneven, and millions remain without a job or the realistic prospect of landing one.

Do-Nothing Congress

Meanwhile, Congress has refused to do much about it. Lawmakers have said No to the president’s jobs program and No to raising the minimum wage.

Workers who believe they’re being short-changed are resorting to the only tool in their arsenal — job protests.

That’s what prompted last week’s strikes by fast-food workers around the nation. They want $15 an hour, which would come to $31,000 a year for full-time employees. That’s more than double the federal minimum wage, which many fast-food workers make, of $7.25 an hour ($7.79 in Florida), the prevailing wage since July of 2009.

Let’s get real: In practical terms, that’s not going to happen. Doubling the minimum wage would be a shock to the economy.

In any case, there’s no political support for it. But — still keeping it real — no family can expect to live a decent life on a minimum wage that translates to $15,000 a year.

And that’s for full-time work, which many employees in minimum wage jobs are denied. It only makes the case for raising the minimum wage stronger.

The 2009 increase was the last of three steps of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007, which also contained $5 billion in tax cuts for small businesses to ease the impact.

Losing ground

Since then, according to a report by the National Employment Law Project, real wages grew by 1.9 percent between 2007 and 2009, but then fell 2.8 percent between 2009 and 2012, which means that over the full five-year period, workers actually lost ground.

Further evidence: Lower-wage occupations constituted 21 percent of recession losses, but 58 percent of recovery growth. In other words, there are more jobs today than at the nadir of the recession, but they pay less. In some cases, a lot less.

Low wages mean fewer consumers for quality goods, or goods of any kind. That leads to fewer jobs. It’s a vicious cycle.

No single law can change the trend of growing inequality. But an increase in the minimum wage is surely part of the solution.

The greater issue, as former President Bill Clinton declared last week in his speech at the 50th anniversary observance of the March on Washington, is the inextricable link between jobs, inequality and freedom. It’s not just an economic issue, or a question of fairness. It’s a question of what kind of country we want to live in.

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