The April 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

US Government Created Housing Shortages

Hate Crimes in S.F. and Boston

Urban Removal in S.F. Bayview

Stop Bulldozers of Gentrification

The Death of Two Eloquent Homeless Voices

Grandmother Is Left Homeless by Car Wreck

Building Strong Unions on U.S./ Mexico Border

Transit Justice Is Derailed

Poor People Use the Internet to Organize

Just Wage for All

Ruling Class Runs Economy into the Ground

Art & Altruism: The Paintings of Elizabeth King

Poor Leonard's Almanack: On Writers

April Poetry of the Streets


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.

A Just Wage for All

A just minimum wage is a moral imperative for the soul of our nation

by Paul H. Sherry

While women make up just under half the total workforce, two out of three minimum-wage workers are women. The minimum wage issue is a women's issue, it is a family issue, and it is a racial justice issue. Christa Occhiogrosso art

Today, and in the immediate months ahead, raising the minimum wage at the federal level and in the states is the most viable instrument we have for combating the poverty that afflicts so many of our nation's people. It is true.

A great deal needs to be done to address poverty: We need a health care system that meets the needs of all our citizens. We need an income floor which provides a basic minimal standard of living below which no one and no family should be allowed to fall. We need far more resources to support the education of our nation's children. We need fair taxes. We need budget responsibility that feeds the poor rather than the machinery of war.

All this is required and more if we are to meet the needs of the poor among us; if we are to be and become a responsible and compassionate nation.

But at this point in time, I believe that working for a living wage for all working people is the most viable option we have for moving us, at least to some significant degree, from where we are today toward where we surely need to be. And that is why I and so many others are fully engaged in campaigns to raise the minimum wage. Again, raising the minimum wage, at the federal level and in the states, is the most viable waystation today on the road to the living wage we seek for all working people and families.

Later, I will suggest specific transformative actions we can take both individually and together. However, before we address the way ahead, let's take a look at where we have been, where we are today, where low-wage working people are today, and where and how far we need to go.

You may remember that the federal minimum wage was enacted through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. That Act was designed, and I am quoting, to eliminate "labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being of workers."

Place that visionary statement over against the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour and you will see how we have turned on its head the very purposes that the Fair Labor Standards Act was enacted to accomplish. Indeed, rather than eliminating labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of a minimum standard of living, the current minimum wage actually reinforces those conditions.

Another bit of history. We all remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the Washington, D.C., mall during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. However, we often forget that a key demand of that 1963 March was, and again I am quoting, for "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."

Dr. King, we are still waiting to fulfill that dream. In fact, we have gone backward, not forward. Think of it! The 1963 minimum wage, in effect at the very moment that so many gathered to seek justice for all Americans on the Washington, D.C., mall, was worth more than $8.00 in today's dollars, about $3.00 more than the current $5.15 minimum wage.

The real minimum wage -- the wage adjusted for inflation -- reached its highest point in 1968. It would take more than $9.00 to match the minimum wage peak of 1968, adjusting for inflation.

If one wants to understand the situation facing low-wage workers and their families, it pays to have a long memory. Since 1968, we all know that the costs of housing, health care and higher education have all risen dramatically. College tuition (public or private), for example, costs more than twice what it did in 1968, adjusting for inflation. But the minimum wage has 43 percent less buying power today than it had in 1968 -- and that buying power will continue to shrink as long as the minimum wage remains stuck at $5.15 per hour.

Again, consider the cost of health insurance. That cost has risen so much that family coverage now costs more than the entire annual income of a full-time worker at minimum wage. Let me repeat that: Family health coverage now costs more than the entire annual income of a full-time worker at minimum wage.

In 1991, family health coverage cost about one-fourth of the yearly income of a minimum-wage worker. In 1998, it took about half the yearly minimum wage. By 2005, family health coverage cost about $10,880, and a full-time minimum wage was just $10,712.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not dream that, in the year 2006, the minimum wage would not have the buying power of 1950. He did not dream that in this new millennium we would be debating whether to "raise" the minimum wage to the level employers paid in the 1960s.
We are living his dream in reverse.

But isn't it true -- as some claim -- that most minimum-wage workers are teenagers living with their families and working for "fun" money? No, that is not true, not at all. In fact, the typical minimum-wage worker is an adult woman of color, not a teenager.

Three out of four minimum-wage workers are age 20 and older.

While women make up just under half the total workforce, two out of three minimum-wage workers are women.

And it also needs to be said that of the teenagers who are working at minimum wage, many are doing so not for "fun" money but because they need the money to pay for their education; because they and their families, like the rest of us, need the money to survive.

In a recent speech, Senator Ted Kennedy said that the minimum wage issue is a women's issue, it is a family issue, it is a racial justice issue. He is right. So if you and I want to act for justice for women, for families, for people of color, for all people struggling to survive, we will not stand idle. We will join the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign and so many other campaigns like it so that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

One other myth is that raising the minimum wage hurts the economy and leads to fewer jobs, particularly for low-wage workers. Again, not true, as demonstrated by the performance of the economy, including job growth, following the 1997 federal raise and the performance of states that have raised their minimum wage above the federal minimum.

In fact, states with higher minimum wages have shown stronger employment trends than the other states, including for retail business and small businesses. The following statement by Dan Gardner, commissioner of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industry, is particularly telling: "Overall most low-wage workers pump every dollar of their paychecks directly into the local economy by spending their money in their neighborhood stores, local pharmacies, and corner markets. When the minimum wage increases, local economies benefit from the increased purchasing power."

We document all this and more in our report, A Just Minimum Wage: Good For Workers, Business and Our Future. This report makes clear that raising the minimum wage is an economic imperative for the enduring strength of our workforce, businesses, communities and economy. Raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative for the very soul of our nation.

But now, it is time to move from what is occurring today to what might be, or more properly what will be, tomorrow. You will remember that I said that raising the minimum wage is the most viable current option for addressing the poverty that afflicts so many of our country's people and families. Let me tell you why I think that is the case.

Simply put, raising the minimum wage has the overwhelming support of our country's people, and that includes many conservative people. This has been demonstrated in any number of recent voter polls and in the results of recent votes in states where the issue has been on the ballot. For example, in the 2004 election in Florida, 71 percent of those voting voted for raising the minimum wage in that state. Also in 2004, Nevada voters affirmed an increase by 68 percent.

A recent poll indicated that 83 percent of Americans support an increase in the federal minimum wage. Men and women, young and old, black, white, brown, conservative, moderate, liberal support a raise in the minimum wage because they recognize the unfairness of a wage that leaves a family of three with a wage earner working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, more than $5000.00 below the poverty line.

They believe -- and we believe -- that a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.

How, then, can we change what is toward that which ought to be? We will do so as, together, we support and work for a raise in the federal minimum wage and for raises in a wide range of states where the minimum wage issue is currently in play. Both efforts -- federally and in the states -- are equally important and mutually reinforcing.

At the federal level, legislation will soon be reintroduced to raise the minimum wage in three steps over two years from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour. If that legislation is passed, a difficult task to be sure, nearly seven and a half million workers will benefit directly and more than eight million more (those earning up to $8.25) will benefit indirectly. That totals fifteen and a half million workers who will get a raise.

Obviously, as significant as a raise from $5.15 to $7.25 would be, it is far from sufficient. Even $7.25 per hour is still worth 20 percent less than the minimum wage of 1968, adjusting for inflation. But it would be a significant step forward and one that deserves our strong and committed support.

At the state level, where at present victories are more probable than is the case federally, activity to raise state minimum wages -- either through ballot initiatives or legislative action -- has been widespread over the last few years. Because of this activity, many, many working people and families have benefited.

As of this date, 18 states plus the District of Columbia have minimum-wage rates higher than the federal and a number of additional states are either gathering signatures to get the issue on the November ballot or awaiting approval to do so. These include Arizona, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas and Montana. States that are considering moving forward with an initiative include Colorado, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere are pursuing intensive legislative action.

Voter turnout in recent years has been disappointing at best, so that turning that situation around, increasing voter turnout, has become a major concern, particularly for those of us who are concerned about democratic participation. In that context, it is important to note that placing an initiative on the ballot is one significant answer to that concern.

In election after election, voter turnout has been higher in states that have had at least one initiative on the ballot. Indeed, according to a recent study published in American Politics Research, the disparity in turnout rates between initiative and non-initiative states has been increasing over time. In the 1990s, turnout in states with initiatives was estimated to be 7 to 9 percent higher in midterm elections and 3 to 4.5 percent higher in presidential elections when compared to states without initiatives.

This being the case, a minimum-wage ballot initiative can bring to the polls many voters who otherwise might be inclined to stay at home. And that, as you well know, is no small matter.

We need to urge our elected representatives in Congress to support an increase in the minimum wage to at least $7.25 per hour and to support increases in those states where state increases are proposed. Not so incidentally, you may want to remind them that members of Congress have had eight pay raises between 1997 -- when the minimum wage was increased to $5.15 per hour -- and 2006. Minimum-wage workers have had none.

In January 2006, congressional pay rose to $165,200 -- up from $133,600 in 1997. The cumulative 1997-2006 congressional pay raise of $31,600 is nearly the total yearly paychecks of three workers at minimum wage. And unlike minimum-wage workers, members of Congress receive good health benefits, pensions and perks.

But as important as it is to speak out to members of Congress, we need to do far more if justice for working people and families is to be done. To this end, I invite your individual and organizational involvement in the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, a campaign composed of over 60 faith-based and community-based bodies committed to raise the minimum wage federally and in the states.

At present, in addition to our work on the federal level, we have Let Justice Roll organizers in Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, and Arkansas who are working alongside statewide campaigns in each of those states. We are engaged also in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and elsewhere. In states where we need to get an initiative on the ballot, we are actively collecting signatures and building support for the initiative. In states where legislative action is required, we are concentrating on convincing state legislators.

In Ohio, for example, Ohioans for a Fair Minimum Wage needs to secure 322,000 valid signatures by not later than August 9, 2006, even as we build support for the initiative with Ohio's voters. We believe we will secure those signatures, but we need all the support we can muster.

Similar efforts are required at both the national level and in other states. Your committed involvement and that of your faith-based body will help assure that our goals will be achieved.

Full information about Let Justice Roll and how you can be involved, including factual information on the minimum wage and state and national contact information, is available on our web site: By working together, as one body, we are convinced that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

I am reminded of Joe Hill, a union organizer who was executed decades ago for his attempt to assist poor working people in the early part of the 20th century. Shortly before he died, his friends and allies were agonizing over his approaching death, so Joe Hill said to them, "My friends, don't agonize, organize."

That's my message today. We have agonized long enough. Now it is time to organize so that justice for low-wage working people and their families will be served. It is time to organize so that families will not need to choose between putting food on the table or buying medicine for a sick child. That is our challenge and that is our opportunity. Together, we shall yet overcome.

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