By Mary Summerbell
Minimum wage increase. Seventy per cent of American voters are for it.
Seems like an obviously good thing to most people, the majority of us rather liking the idea of a little more jingle in our pockets and purses as we find the pursuit of life, liberty
and happiness – as well as food, shelter, clothing and health care – a bit more affordable. But there are folks who, (I think, hypocritically), express concern about job loss. They say
we must weigh the benefits of lifting 900,000 people out of poverty and improving the income of millions at the possible cost of 500,00 jobs. Hm-m-m-m-m.
Perusing the news about potential economic effects of raising/not raising, state/federal minimum wage, incrementally/at once, now/later, quickly reassures me that what we have to fear most in this country is overly emphatic random opinions, backed by statistics easily twisted to support any point of view. Head-spinning reading.
But one article sparked my mind and heart. It gives a clear, specific example of how ever-shifting complexities can very quickly and directly affect individuals with little or no knowledge or control of the political winds howling around them. It’s about
prevocational programs in Wisconsin – designed to help people with disabilities, like Downs Syndrome, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and mental illness – get and keep jobs at
job centers or in their communities. There are seventy-some such organizations in the state that train people in job and life skills and contract with local industries to get work for them.
A controversial factor of this system is that, according to allowances in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, these disabled workers are paid subminimum wages. Pay scales are based on a prevailing wage study for each task, with pay rates based on productivity. If a worker with disabilities can do seventy per cent of the work of a worker without
disabilities, he or she gets paid seventy percent of the prevailing rate for that job.
A federal bill recently introduced by the House of Representatives will phase out special wage certificates. If passed, it will have huge, hard-hitting national impact on
Both executive directors of program facilities interviewed say that without the subminimum pay allowance it would be “nearly impossible” to keep their employees on the job. And that one hundred per cent integration into community work “isn’t going to happen” because people with complex disabilities don’t integrate well.
What is going to happen to these programs, to these people, if this bill becomes law? Is it protecting those with disabilities to insist they be paid minimum wage, or is it destroying the best chance they have for meaningful employment? In the current limited job market are people without disabilities disadvantaged by opportunities for the disabled? Are people who are self-supporting or providing for a family wrongly displaced by people working for less who can never be independent?
As a person with a history of mental illness, with two adult children with learning disabilities, this article really hit home for me. Reflecting on multiple aspects of this topic evokes conflicting thoughts and emotions in me. This issue of fair minimum wage calls us to consider the whole spectrum of human differences of ability, education, resources and circumstances-the innate inequities of life that are often exacerbated by our sometimes viciously competitive and greedy society. We need to ask, “How can our government best serve every citizen’s basic human needs?”
What is fair? Do we care about fairness? Certainly, fair does not mean equal. But how do we divvy up society’s pie, and who decides how and why? With serious, often hidden, limitations to deal with daily, how do the less able survive in the real world of financial necessity? How can we survive when we can’t keep up in this brutal economy where only results are honored, where it’s all about product and speedy service and not about process or inner effort? It’s unrealistic to expect equal pay for less work. But how can we measure work in a way that financially honors all honest labor?
Spiritually, we want everyone to thrive and succeed. But what would that look like in our current economic reality? We live in a country where, in thirty-five states, welfare
pays more than minimum wage. Many families with both parents working full time can barely, or not, provide basic necessities for their children. Thirteen per cent of
grandparents have grandchildren living with them out of economic need. Many elders make painful daily choices of food or medicine. Economists predict that by 2020 almost
fifty per cent of jobs will be poverty level. It seems that for many the American dream of succeeding through hard work has turned into a nightmare of struggling for daily bread,
with little or no hope for anything better.
And yet there is also unprecedented wealth – of the few – worldwide. Things have become so lopsided it’s hard to see or imagine how they might be more balanced.
I don’t have answers. I’m not an economist. I don’t want to be a cynic or a pessimist, either. I think there are things we can do to lift the economic spirit of this country and the world. The first is to simply be thankful for all we have – even the most basic, simple
little things. A glass of clean water. A cup of tea. A flower. A pet. Talking to a friend. Walking down the street. Sunshine. Breathing.
I believe that appreciation generates abundance. We can appreciate people and the work they do every day, whether it is paid or unpaid labor. Mothers. Teachers. Plumbers. Delivery people. Librarians. Artists. Electricians (See ad, page 7), Nurses. Cops. (Even if we get a ticket.) Appreciate the person waiting on your table, filling your order at the fast food place, or stocking the shelves at the grocery store. Let them know you are grateful for them doing their jobs. Look directly into their eyes and say, “Thank
you.” This is a small but powerful thing.
We all want to be recognized for what we do. We all want to be valued by our community. I believe there would be incredible beneficial effects on our economy if we truly considered the value of each individual in our community, not just as an economic factor, but as a person. What do we value in each person we meet each day? The answers may not initially put any money in anybody’s pocket, but it could be the beginning, the foundation, of a working, principled system of fair wages for all. It commands an attitude of respect that can guide wise choices in wage issues, and open possibilities and opportunities at every level of income.
And while we’re waiting on that “maybe” of a pay raise…. we can volunteer to ease the economic burden of someone we know. Even if we live in poverty, we can give a smile, give time, give of ourselves. We can care and share. Offer to babysit for the kids next door. Give a friend a ride to an appointment or an amusement. Make your sick neighbor some soup. Read for someone who struggles with reading – or just enjoys a story. Share the bounty of your garden – or your life experience. Teach child a skill. Exchange favors. Barter goods and services. There are unlimited ways for us all to contribute to each other’s financial health and wealth, with rewards well beyond what money can buy.