One of the most maddening features of the current fiscal cliff/fiscal swindle debate is that the chattering class rarely acknowledges the people who have already fallen off the cliff: 5 million Americans who have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. The roughly 7 million people who aren’t even counted as unemployed because even though they want a job they haven’t bothered looking for one. The high percentage of unemployed workers who had to settle for new jobs with a pay cut of 20 percent or more. The 2.7 million part-time workers who want a full-time job but can’t find one. And the millions of workers forced to sustain a family on a job that pays poverty-level wages.
An economic debate worthy of a nation that prides itself on its moral values and compassion would have these people, along with the elderly and others who are financially struggling, at the very center of the national discourse. Instead, whether it is the “chained CPI” debate on Social Security or such measures as the worker-disempowerment law that just passed in Michigan, it seems that political leaders in Washington are working overtime to make sure that workers have lower wages, and that retired people and those in poverty have even less financial security.
It is time to push for an agenda that puts an end to throwing working-class people and the economically struggling off a cliff of economic inequality and injustice.
A good start would be the agenda laid out by the National Employment Law Project in its report released Wednesday, “100 Days for America’s Workers.” It proposes a five-part plan that President Obama and Congress could, if it had the will to do so, enact during the first 100 days of his new administration. They fit the principle that the key to addressing the nation’s economic problems, including the federal budget deficit, is to first put people back to work at jobs that pay a living wage.
The plan’s elements are:
1. Renew federal unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless, which will ensure that 2 million people who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks will not lose their primary source of subsistence income before they can find new jobs in a more robust economy. That is especially crucial at a time when many economists predict economic growth in the U.S. could be as low as 2 percent in 2013 without a major intervention by the federal government .
4. Raise the minimum wage. Here’s the ugly truth, according to the NELP report: “Roughly one-fourth of U.S. workers earn less than the federal poverty line for a family of four. And contrary to stereotypes, most low-wage workers are adults, not teens: 87.9 percent of workers who would benefit from raising the minimum wage are adults 20 years or older.” Congress should pass a law similar to the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage to at least $10 an hour by 2015, restoring the purchasing power the minimum wage has lost since the late 1960s, and then indexing it to the cost of living so that future workers will not fall behind.