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Labor & Economy

Of Biblical Proportions: Inequality and Poverty Wages




My friend pastors a vibrant congregation in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles. Her people reflect the neighborhood and the church worships in both Spanish and English. In a conversation this week I asked her how her folks were doing. Her voice dropped, and she shook her head. “There are no jobs,” she said, “and the ones who work can only get part-time hours.” With dismay, she said, “I don’t know how they are making it.”

I don’t either. At one extreme, high-end properties – homes that sell for several millions of dollars – had a banner year in 2012. Sales of super-expensive automobiles reached record levels. Exotic vacation destinations are packed. The number of jobs in Los Angeles County has reached about 4.3 million, almost the number we had before the Great Recession began five years ago, although there are now also more people looking for work than then.

In 1968 a full-time, minimum wage job provided about 86 percent of what it cost to live. Today it takes two people working in a family of four to reach the lowest rung on the slippery ladder of what could remotely be called a middle-income standard of living. These families have a place to live, food, probably an old car that they hope doesn’t break down — and they must pray that no one gets hurt on the job or the kids don’t get sick. Already they live by borrowing; medical debt would put them under.

About 146 million Americans live in a condition that one weekly news magazine calls “poor-but-working class.” Since the recession began in 2008, 60 percent of all the jobs created in this country only pay minimum wage, which stays stuck where it was five years ago, while inflation actually has increased by seven percent. The people with these kinds of jobs do the low-level service work that the rest of us depend on. They wash our cars, watch our pre-schoolers, care for our elders who are too ill to get out of the house. They sew in sweatshops, clear tables at restaurants, weed gardens. Overwhelmingly they work in fast food and low-end retail.

Half of all this poor-but-working class is composed of white folks who mostly live in the South and Southwest, but they represent only 10 percent of this caste-of-perpetual-debt. A quarter of Latinos and African American people live in circumstances of working poverty. Right now in America, one out of every four employees earns less than $10 an hour, and almost a third of all workers don’t receive paid sick leave. So this is not just a problem for “them” — some faceless demographic to be viewed at a distance. It affects working people right here.

Conventional wisdom says that education changes these circumstances. That used to be true, but now the average high school graduate earns $12,000 a year less than the same graduate in 1980. Getting a college education can help, of course. However, only 30 percent of Americans earn a BA degree, and 15 percent of those grads are driving taxis, and 25 percent of retail clerks have their bachelors – not big-paying jobs. These economic realities mean that what we used to call “structural unemployment” or “under-employment” has become the pervasive mode of living for most workers. The American Dream has been reduced to a persistent struggle to make ends meet.

I have long believed that if people work all day they should earn enough to provide shelter, food and health care for themselves and their families. Even the Bible – from Moses to Jesus – calls for employers to pay a wage people can live on. But that is not, apparently, the common practice these days. Now, despite the rising indicators of economic recovery, too many working families are discovering there are only poverty jobs, part-time jobs or no jobs at all.

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