If you feel like you are a slave when you go to work, you probably are.
The vast majority of us work for what amounts to minimum wage. I don’t mean the official federal, state or local minimum wage under which the poorest among us labors. I am referring to the lowest wage an employer can get away with at your pay grade in order to bolster the next day’s stock value or capital gain.
In that game, labor is not an asset. It is a liability – a cost.
I have lived during five generations – my grandparents, parents, then me, my daughter and my grandchildren. During those generations, I have seen an amazing rise and decline in human worth.
Modest But Secure Future
My father’s first home was a tent. But, during his generation, there was opportunity for all. A single wage earner was able to support an entire family, providing at least a basic lifestyle and one automobile. My dad’s 1957 swept-wing Dodge Royal with push-button drive was way beyond modest for a coal miner. We had roast beef on Sundays. We had $50 to spend at Christmas time.
There were a few poor people. Mostly they were uneducated, unskilled or unable to work. But an average family like mine could accumulate enough wealth during one wage earner’s lifetime to finance post-secondary education for their children, pay off a mortgage and save a little money for retirement. To them, it was their wealth.
College educated professionals could support a much finer lifestyle and they didn’t need more than one income to do it either. The primary purpose of working in those days was to support as good a family lifestyle as you could get. That was wealth and you could have it.
The future was secure because a couple would pay off the mortgage and their company benefits would continue long into retirement. We had no fear. Jobs were plentiful. The future was bright and our tomorrows would take care of themselves.
Older people remembered the Great Depression from their experience or the stories they’d heard and they were cautious and frugal in a largely cash economy. But for my generation, it was by and large “let the good times roll.”
Hey! We were there for the birth of rock and roll! Cool man!
Stay at Home Option
In those days women had the option of being stay-at-home moms. Please don’t label it as sex discrimination or you won’t understand the effect home economics has on our social, political and economic wellbeing. There is a difference between working to make ends meet and pursuing a career.
Generally, a woman did not have to work outside the home because one payroll still was sufficient. During child-rearing years most mothers saw themselves as “domestic engineers” and it was no joke. They had the luxury of being able to fulfill the job. They performed essential leadership, management and labor functions that were vital to the present and future of the next generation. To them it was a calling, a responsibility.
Running a household was serious business and a high school course in home economics provided the basics. “Home Ec” has largely disappeared as part of the formal curriculum in high schools today. Economic management at home has largely disappeared with it. Occasionally it’s an elective labeled “Consumer Science.” Good title! Both boys and girls could use it during their struggles to make ends meet and get ahead in a world much less friendly than that of their forefathers.
Minimum Mindset Behind Wages
What got you to the current mess is best shown in the thinking behind minimum wage. It is a mind-set that affects more than just the one or two percent of us who work for minimum wages. It is the mindset behind all wages.
You may be correct that legal minimum wage doesn’t apply to you directly but it explains why you aren’t feeling much better than the poorest of the working poor. Minimum wage means employers are required by law to pay at least a certain amount. But the minimum actually becomes the maximum the employer will pay because the minimum isn’t adjusted often and the employer won’t go past it. Why should he? He’s obeying the law and it helps him keep his labor costs down to feed the greed of unrestrained capitalism.
Your employer is likely paying the least he or she can get away with at every point on the pay scale.
The federal minimum wage was last set in 1970 and remains $7.50 an hour. That is still the minimum wage in half the states even though the cost of living has soared during that time. Several states and municipalities have recently passed laws setting higher minimums, some as high as $15 per hour. But most are barely into the tens. None of these rates brings a singular wage earner above the poverty line. And more often than not, these minimums are restricted further by limiting workers to part-time employment.
I don’t think there is any other wage issue that better reveals the mind-set of American capitalists and their obedient policy-makers toward wage earners – I’m meaning all wage earners – than the concept of minimum wage and how it is managed . . . or mismanaged. The predatory business model is based entirely on the bottom line and public policy-makers are married to an economic model that depends on profit, not the common good, to drive the “not my economy.”
Economic Backbone Broken
Indisputable is the fact that Americans have long lived in a nation made up primarily of middle-class families, neither rich nor poor, but living comfortably. Until the past few decades, they have been considered the backbone of the American economy.
Back in 1971, roughly two out of three Americans lived in middle-income households. Three years ago, it had dropped to less than half. Since then, the middle has been steadily shrinking. Those in the lower middle class live in fear of dropping into the lower class. Conversely, roughly half of American families are already trapped in the lower class.
I admit that a few in the middle class have actually graduated to join the elite one percent. Some like to claim that’s part of the cause of the shrinking middle. I laugh a lot!
Given the takeaways that unrestrained capitalists and governments are threatening every day, there is reason to believe that the fears of working families are well founded – that more of them are destined to fall into the lower class with little reason to hope for better.
It is safe to say that the middle class has not had a real pay raise in the last 25 years if you account for the rising cost of being a middle class family.
Most recent research defines the middle class as households of three people with annual incomes ranging from $42,000 to $125,000. If you are more than three, then the numbers change and not for the better.
You might think those households are living high on the hog, but the federal government calculates a living wage varying from state to state – $45,000 in West Virginia to $68,000 in Washington, D.C.
Those figures may surprise you, but wait.
A recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve System received shocking answers from middle class respondents when asked how they would pay for a $400 emergency. Nearly half said either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with $400 at all.
Middle Class Isn’t Cheap
You see, it costs a lot of money to belong to the middle class and the cost of living has reached up from the lower class to the middle where income is not rising. That’s why they call it the middle class squeeze. Stagnant or declining incomes and economic crises are meeting above the middle class line and dragging those families down across the border. For the most of them, it is for the first time. Most of them were born to a middle class family. Most of them are older and faced with the prospect of starting over. And they are scared.
Wealth has always meant owning property. In our early history, only property owners could vote.
Employers have deepened the problem for all classes during the past decades by shifting the cost of healthcare coverage and retirement benefits to their employees.
During the past two decades healthcare premiums have risen three times as fast as wages. Deductibles, co-pays and drugs as well. As a result, workers are opting for no coverage or minimum coverage with higher and higher deductibles. When the big medical crisis comes, they either skip the care or suffer the consequences: untreated life-threatening illness or bankruptcy.
All of us are living on that edge, but it is particularly sad for an entire economic class that was once considered the backbone of our economy.
The stock market crash of 2007 was the culmination of a lot of bad business and government policy, but too little attention has been paid to the economic conditions already suffered by workers before the crash.
Downsizing for Profit
When the capitalists struggled to maintain their position in the false economy, they turned to their old standby solution, reduction in the cost of labor. “Downsizing” was the buzzword among corporate giants as they tried to make up for bad management. Cutting or eliminating benefits wasn’t enough and so they used every trick in the book to reduce payroll.
One way was the hiring freeze, coupled with the shifting of responsibilities from dismissed workers to those remaining.
The remaining workers were expected to work harder, faster or secretly put in overtime to accomplish the work that once required two or more people. They took work home with them and dared not complain lest they too would be eliminated. With tongues in cheeks, management threatened discipline for doing it, but dodged the law by turning their heads. Hearing no evil, seeing no evil.
When that wasn’t enough, companies began to lay off older workers, which meant replacing higher-paid career workers with new hires at lower wages and no benefits. That’s where the American Dream began to completely crumble for middle class Americans. That’s the crash that took place in the People’s Economy long before the Wall Street debacle.
Market Collapse, Human Carnage
Never mind. The carnage continued into 2010 when the senseless capitalists got what they had coming to them, a collapse euphemistically labeled a recession.
I really meant that last statement to be negative. But those who caused the crash received what they wanted from the government . . . bail-outs while accelerating their downsizing strategies through wholesale elimination of their most valuable human resources to “save money.”
While the false economy as seen on Wall Street, has recovered, many valuable middle class workers remain dimished, out of work or underemployed. And politicians crow about the growth in jobs without mentioning they are largely in lesser positions at what I now call the “universal minimum wage.”
I feel like Mother Jones all over again.
Please move on to the next essay.