The July 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

Corruption at Oakland Housing Authority

Shot Through the Heart in S.F.

Legal Challenge to Cruel Attacks on SF Homeless

GRIP's Shelter in Richmond

HUD Plans to Demolish Public Housing in New Orleans

Fresno Homeless Attacked

Stonewalling by Bush's ICH on Homeless Issues

Are We Not Our Brother's Keeper

Congress Refuses to Raise the Minimum Wage

Beyond Prisons: Challenge to the Prison System

Penal Servitude

The U.S. Racial Wealth Gap

Poor Working Conditions for Immigrants

AFSC Sues Defense Dept. for Surveillance

Surveillance and Orwell's 1984

Enron's Good Fight

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Self-Realization

July Poetry of the Streets

Child Slavery on African Cocoa Farms

The Worth of Education in the Phillipines


June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005




Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Congress Raises Its Own Pay, Yet Denies Raises to Workers

by Holly Sklar

"Meritocracy" by Art Hazelwood. Congress awards itself pay raises and fills its own coffers, enriching itself at the expense of workers.

Members of Congress like to talk about values. They sure don't mean the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." While more and more hardworking Americans struggle to make ends meet, Congress showed what it really values -- the rising value of congressional pay.

The House refused to block the $3,300 "cost of living adjustment" that will raise congressional pay on January 1 to $168,500 -- not counting great health benefits, pensions and perks.

Congressional pay raises between 1997 and 2007 will add up to $34,900. That's more than average workers make in a year. It would take more than three workers to make $34,900 at the minimum wage, which has been stuck at $5.15 an hour -- just $10,712 a year -- since September 1, 1997.

Full-time workers at minimum wage make less than $900 a month to pay for rent, food, healthcare, gas and everything else. No wonder the U.S. Conference of Mayors Hunger and Homelessness Survey found that 40 percent of adults requesting emergency food assistance were employed, as were 15 percent of homeless people.

Childcare workers and security guards struggle to care for their own children. EMTs and health care aides can't afford to take sick days. Yet Congress has given itself raise after raise, while giving none to minimum-wage workers.

As Adam Smith himself wrote in The Wealth of Nations, "It is but equity... that those who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed, and lodged."

Today's minimum-wage workers have less buying power than minimum-wage workers did back in 1950 when Harry Truman was president. The 1950 minimum wage is $6.30 in 2006 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator. It would take $9.31 today to match the value of the minimum wage of 1968. It takes nearly two minimum-wage workers to make what one worker made four decades ago.

The minimum wage has become a poverty wage instead of an anti-poverty wage. This has ripple effects far beyond minimum-wage workers and their families.

The minimum wage sets the wage floor. When the minimum wage sinks, it drags down wages for workers up the pay scale as well. Between 1968 and 2005, worker productivity rose 111 percent, but the average hourly wage fell 5 percent, adjusting for inflation, and the minimum wage fell 43 percent.

The inflation-adjusted earnings of college-educated workers have fallen since 2000. Poverty rates are higher now than in the 1970s and we have an increasingly low-wage workforce instead of a growing middle class.

Contrary to myth, raising the minimum wage helps business and boosts the economy. We had high economic growth, low inflation, low unemployment and declining poverty rates after the last minimum wage hikes in 1996 and 1997. States that have raised their minimum wages above the increasingly inadequate $5.15 federal level have had better employment trends than the other states, including for retail businesses and small businesses.

Higher wages increase consumer purchasing power, reduce costly employee turnover, and improve productivity and the quality of products and services. For example, In-N-Out Burger, home of the nation's first drive-through hamburger stand, ranks first nationwide among fast food chains in overall excellence, food flavor, quality and customer service. Their entry-level wage of $9 is nearly $4 above the federal minimum wage.

Small business owner Malcolm Davis wrote in a letter to the editor, "My lowest-paid employee makes $8 per hour.... If I can find a way to be fair with my employees in rural Eastern North Carolina, why can't our government?"

A recent survey by the National Consumers League and Fleishman-Hillard Communications found that 76 percent of U.S. consumers believe "how well a company treats/pays employees influences what they buy." Consumers said "commitment to employees" is the strongest proof of corporate responsibility and it is important for companies to ensure that workers "are paid a living wage."

A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. It's time for Congress to stop their luxury raises, and raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

Holly Sklar is co-author of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future ( and Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us. She can be reached at

If Congress Deserves A Raise, Why Don't Workers?

by Janis D. Shields, American Friends Service Committee

PHILADELPHIA-Following Congress's eighth pay raise since 1997 and the defeat of minimum-wage legislation in the Senate on June 21, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization and co-recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, urged the U.S. House of Representatives to raise the federal minimum wage. Since Congress last raised the minimum wage in 1997, its real value has eroded more than 20 percent.

AFSC also had called on House members to reject an estate tax "compromise," introduced by House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-CA), that exempted estates worth as much as $5 million -- $10 million for couples -- from taxation indefinitely. Yet even as the Senate voted to reject a raise in the minimum wage on June 21, the Republican-controlled House voted on June 22 to slash taxes on inherited estates, a huge tax reduction for the rich.

Joyce Miller, AFSC assistant general secretary for justice and human rights, said: "After years of favoring the nation's wealthiest taxpayers, Congress can show it cares about ordinary people by voting to raise the minimum wage and reject a 'compromise' that would starve social programs of needed money by gutting the estate tax."

The AFSC supported an amendment by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) to the Department of Defense authorization bill, which would have raised the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. On June 21, the Senate rejected that amendment by six votes, and also an amendment by Senator Michael Enzi (R-WY) that would have coupled a smaller minimum-wage increase with devastating anti-worker provisions.

A person who works 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week, at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, earns just $10,700 -- $6,000 below the federal poverty level of $16,660 for a family of three. Sixty-one percent of minimum wage workers are women.

"The minimum wage is a moral issue," Miller added. "By keeping the minimum wage a poverty wage, Congress is compounding the race and gender discrimination that disproportionately tracks women and people of color into low-wage jobs.

"Some members of Congress have argued that raising the minimum wage would hurt low-wage workers by encouraging employers to hire undocumented immigrants instead. Rather than pitting workers against each other, Congress should pass laws that make the minimum wage a fair wage and strengthen and enforce the right of all workers to organize and form unions."

AFSC is a founding member of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign (, a network of more than 70 faith, labor and community groups working to raise federal and state minimum wages. The coalition played an important part in recent successful campaigns in Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia, which raised the minimum wages in those states.

"The base pay for a Congressperson is $168,500," noted Rick Wilson, director of AFSC's West Virginia Economic Justice Project, who played a leading role in the successful drive to raise the minimum wage in that state. "Contrast this to the experience of a single mother of two who earns $10,712 a year, working 40-hour weeks without a break."

"The single mom would have to work 15.7 years at 40 hours per week to earn what the Congressperson does. In fact, she'd have to work about 641 hours just to make as much as the congressional cost-of-living increase," Wilson notes in his blog, at

In addition to a minimum-wage increase, AFSC is campaigning for a "moral budget" based on fair tax policies and adequate funding for social programs. It recently co-published, with the National Council of Churches, A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future by Holly Sklar and the Rev. Dr. Paul Sherry.

That report counters arguments against raising the minimum wage, and highlights the important role of a higher minimum wage in helping the U.S. move toward a "high-road economy." The report is available in pdf format at, or from Dorothy Lazenbury-Gibbs, at (215) 241-7048.

The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are committed to social justice, peace and humanitarian service. Its work is based on the belief in the worth of every person and faith in the power of love to overcome violence and injustice.

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