Building the New Democratic Politics from out of the Old: Using Government to Protect the Average American
By Cheryl Seal
The folks at the Labor and Census Bureaus frame their data in a sneaky format that makes the average income look healthier and racial patterns more equitably distributed than they really are. Income is typically presented as a "median" value (few people know the difference between mean, median, and mode--and it can be immense). Instead of income per worker, we are more likely to be shown "household income," in which every man, woman, child, dog and cat may contribute some earnings. But the fact is, the "average American"--the common man for whom we Democrats allegedly stand--is not doing that well. Over 35% of all workers between ages 16 and 65 now make between $5.25 per hour (min. wage) and $9.50 per hour. It is estimated that less than half have any kind of benefits, most have no job security (ask any worker in the service sector what the phrase "at will employee" means), and a high percentage work two or more part-time jobs because they need to in order to make ends meet.
Yet it is the poorly paid, neglected workers in the service sector upon whom the American corporate empire stands.. Walmart, K-Mart, Home Depot, McDonald's, every supermarket chain, every retail store in every mall across America--are all built upon the backs of underpaid clerks, counter helpers, stockers, cashiers, short-order cooks, receptionists, and waitresses/waiters averaging about $7.00 per hour. These workers have no voice--any worker at Walmart even caught talking to a union rep can be summarily fired (ask any clerk at any store!), any cashier at a typical supermarket chain who refuses to push carts around in the cold or clean toilets because they weren't hired to do those jobs can be fired. Any kid working at an all-night convenience store who refuses late night shifts out of self-preservation, can also be shown the door. In addition to being under paid, these employees, a high percentage of whom are our youngest and oldest workers (students, just-out-of schoolers, and retirees trying to make a little extra money), they are also often most at risk: The homicide rate for all-night convenience store clerks, for example, rivals that of big-city cab drivers.
Legislative protections of these workers is abysmally inadequate or nonexistent. Routine employer practices include assigning irregular and unpredictable shifts (i.e., 4:00 to 11:00 PM one day and 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM the next, in a chaotic pattern--just try finding child care or a second job on that schedule!), compulsory unexpected overtime (workers in the food service sector are especially vulnerable to this practice if there's a last minute rush), being sent home without pay because business is slow (though the worker may have depended on that extra two or three hours pay), being hired to do one job and ending up doing the work of two or three, being charged from an already tiny paycheck for accidental breakage, or for being "stiffed" by a customer (wait staff know this one all too well!), being assigned 28-34 hours regularly so the employer does not have to pay benefits, two-week pay schemes in which workers can be assigned to work 50 hours one week during a busy time, then cut back to 30 the next so no overtime is paid out, no sick time, and so forth ad nauseum. Is it any wonder that the greatest amount of shoplifting that occurs is done not by customers but by store employees with zero respect for their employers?
The Bush tax cut will give these workers a laughable extra $150-200 per year.That won't even cover one week of sick time. It is a pretty good move for the rich employers, though. According to Labor Bureau projections, jobs in the service sector will increase more rapidly over the next 7 years than all other types of jobs except for the most highly specialized professions, such as systems analyst. Want to bet the real reason behind Bush's testing scheme? A test-or-don't graduate program will achieve one goal: providing a steady stream of high school dropouts to stuff into the underpaid service sector jobs. The groups that are most likely to test poorly, despite actual aptitude, are blacks, Hispanics, low-income and/or transient whites, and teenagers in abusive or dysfunctional homes. Bush's testing scheme is an insidious way to trample the already fragile hope of upward mobility among a huge group.
Shrub also wants to cut daycare to low income women. That means women with children in the service sector will inevitably be forced onto welfare. While we're on the subject of compassion--where is Bush's plan for medical insurance for the service sector? Few of these workers have coverage. The average Blue Cross plan for a single person in good health not covered by an employer's plan is about $200 a month. For someone taking home $800-$1350 per month, it may as well be $2,000. I say, fine--if Bush wants to thumb his nose at one-third of all American workers, then it is time for the Democrats to come out swinging on behalf of these undefended workers.
Here is a proposal that will make life enormously kinder for service sector employees and put more money into their struggling budgets than any insulting crumbs from Bush's tax plan: First and foremost: Abolish Income tax completely for all workers making under $20,000 and reduce their social security payment. The reduction can be taken out of taxes gleaned from those making over $100,000 per year.
Next, it's time to propose a real alternative program: Let's call it " THE HAND UP PROGRAM (as opposed to the Republican's favorite pariah: the "hand out"!). The Hand Up Program would be, in essence, a voucher system aimed at bringing the standard of living of low-income workers up to a true living wage. Vouchers could only be used for their target commodity, so the Repubs. can't say we're "handing money over to druggies and drunks" (better we should hand it over to the oil industry, eh?).
TRANSPORTATION VOUCHERS: Worth $150 per month, usable on public transportation, in cabs, toward car payments, and toward car repair bills.
CLOTHING VOUCHERS: Receptionists, clerks, and other office workers in low-paying positions are expected, incredibly, to dress well. A $50/ per month clothing voucher would be issued to those in certain professions.
RENT VOUCHERS: Rent is the number one problem for low-income workers. Average one-bedroom apartments in major U.S. cities range from $400 to $850. That's about half to two-thirds a paycheck for these workers! Rent vouchers should be a minimum amount ($200, say). In addition to reducing pressure off workers, this move would open up more housing to low income people, relieving the current crunch. At present, section 8 housing is not only hard to come by, it is usually outrageously inflated in price by the
landlords receiving the state/federal payments.
INSURANCE VOUCHERS: For employees not covered under an employee plan, medical vouchers of at least $100 would be provided, payable either to an insurance plan or directly to a care provider.
SCHOOL VOUCHERS: For employees enrolled in a class, vouchers payable to a college or vocational training program would be made available equal to the cost of one to two courses per semester. At present, virtually no financial aid is available to people trying to take one class at a time (all many workers can manage).
CHILD CARE VOUCHERS: This would enable low-income workers to take their children to any care provider--even pay their relatives, thereby opening up more options. At present, decent daycare options are becoming woefully scarce.
Outrageously, at present, the basic needs (medical attention, adequate clothing, shelter) of indentured servants and slaves in some households in the 1800s were given more attention than the low-income workers of today's service sector. Thoreau once said, "It's not enough to be good--be good for something!" How about the common man, for starters?