Tavis Smiley Says Fight Poverty With Living-Wage Jobs

Isaiah J. Poole

As the political establishment prepares to do battle Friday over what is likely to be another mediocre jobs report, talk-show host Tavis Smiley this afternoon called for a living-wage jobs program as part of an all-out offensive against poverty in America.

“What we need is a program for creating jobs with a living wage,” Smiley said during a conference call set up to promote the book he wrote with author and educator Cornel West, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.”

The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto
by Tavis Smiley

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The book is an in-depth look at income inequality in America and its political, economic and moral dimensions. Smiley calls poverty “the moral and spiritual issue of our time” and is urging the White House to convene a “conference on the eradication of poverty” that would come up with a specific plan with concrete benchmarks for lowering the national poverty rate.

And without question, jobs would be a central part of that agenda.

“Tax cuts do not equal an aggressive jobs program,” Smiley said, responding to such proposals as a recently passed bill in the House of Representatives that would give $46 billion in tax cuts to so-called “small businesses,” even those that earn hundreds of millions of dollars, in the name of job creation. That legislation, according to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, would actually have had too small an effect on the economy to be measured.

What Smiley and West call for is a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour; the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. The minimum wage is higher in 18 states and the District of Columbia, but the highest minimum wage in the country is $9.04 an hour, in Washington.

Smiley’s call for living-wage jobs was affirmed today by a new report by the National Employment Law Project that found that Americans are earning less in real terms than they did a year ago.

Even as the economy has shown signs of picking up in 2012, weak wage growth is permeating the labor market from virtually all sides. Hourly wages are growing slower than they did before the recession; the real value of wages has fallen over the past year; new job creation has skewed to lower-paying jobs; and wages for new and returning entrants in the workforce are declining. Additionally, the wages for Americans who already have jobs are flat, and those in minimum wage jobs find their spending power falling every year, reaching levels well below the historic standard.

The report, in fact, says that private sector workers saw their wages fall more than a half-percent in real terms in the past year, and production workers were among those who saw their wages fall by a full percent in real terms.

The National Employment Law Project also noted today that if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, when a minimum-wage job came closest to allowing a person to rise above the poverty line, the minimum wage today would be $10.55 an hour.

“The Rich and The Rest of Us” talks about the trends updated by the NELP report. It points out, for example, that 60 percent of the jobs lost during the Great Recession—or “depression,” as Paul Krugman calls it—were in mid-wage occupations, 73 percent of the newly created jobs have been in low-wage occupations.

As Smiley talked about unemployment, he also talked about the “bankrupt” language we use when talk about people who are struggling economically.

“This notion of the working poor, we take that terminology on in the book,” Smiley said. “If you work in America you ought not to be poor, and the fact that we have as a part of our lexicon ‘working poor’ is troubling to us.”

Nor should we be talking about a “jobless recovery,” Smiley said. If it is jobless, it is not recovery.

“The Rich and The Rest of Us” was prompted by the “poverty tour” that Smiley and West undertook in 2011, which unfortunately attracted more mainstream media attention for Smiley and West’s criticism of the Obama administration than for the damage caused by conservative economic policies that the tour sought to uncover.

The book seeks to refocus the debate on what the nation must do to correct an economic imbalance that Smiley says is unsustainable and is in fact “a threat to our democracy.” And while Smiley calls on the White House to convene a conference on the eradication of poverty, one of the chapters of his book is called “The Poverty of Opportunity.” Ensuring that every American has the opportunity to get a good job at a living wage has to be at the center of any effort to narrow the gap between the rich and the rest of us.


This post was updated with corrected state minimum wage information. Washington has the highest state minimum age; not Oregon.

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