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Working for wages that don't pay the bills

Already in the news is the brewing fight between Democrats and Republicans over what Congress should do about the expiring Bush tax cuts. Whether the richest Americans continue to get a break on income taxes will endlessly rivet cable television's talking heads and Washington politicos before the midterm elections, but the issue is not going to engage many Americans lower down the income pyramid.

The simmering anger driving voters this election season concerns jobs — good jobs — and a growing frustration that the country's leaders don't have a plan to resurrect the American Dream. President Barack Obama was elected to be bold and push liberal answers to this problem. His unimpressive poll numbers say he hasn't done enough.

Bringing that message home is the new documentary Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County. The HBO film by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, offers an arresting portrait of America's paycheck-to-paycheck life as seen through the eyes of the kids who live it.

Orange County is one of the wealthiest areas of the country. It's where Bravo's The Real Housewives of Orange County show off their indulgent lifestyles in their big-dollar homes. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Rudee sleeps between her parents in a run-down motel room because her father's mechanic pay isn't enough for an apartment. And Celine, age 10, and brothers Dilan and Ben, 9 and 7, are crowded into a single motel room with their parents and another sibling. Dad lost his job and mom works night shifts at a hospital making a little over $11 per hour. She can't give up working nights because the extra dollar and change per hour is essential income for the family.

The documentary features working parents whose jobs pay so poorly — though more than the federal minimum wage — that they can't provide a basic standard of living for their children. One widowed mom of four kids figured out she would have to earn double her hourly pay in the parking department of Disneyland to afford a stable home.

No one should work 40 hours and still be unable to afford decent shelter, food, transportation and health care, but this country allows it. And it's no accident. It's deliberate public policy.

How this has happened and what can be done is the focus of "Not Just More Jobs — But Good Jobs," a special report in the upcoming edition of the American Prospect. According to co-founding editor Robert Kuttner, multiple factors got us here: Government retrenched on labor-market regulation. This allowed the minimum wage to tank in value, and union busting to become a look-the-other-way affair. Globalization expanded without government insisting on symmetrical rules to protect workers, thereby ending the tacit social contract between labor and management that workers were not to be treated as disposable cogs of production. In short, for more than 30 years the U.S. government has failed workers.

What can be done to undo the damage without legislative action, since Republicans will oppose anything proworker? Kuttner suggests that the most consequential immediate action Obama could take is to start using government's buying power to reward good labor practices. It must be big-time, governmentwide, and high-profile.

One in every four jobs in the economy is influenced by federal procurement, whether it's foodstuffs for the military or Medicaid payments to nursing homes. Jobs in these industries could be transformed tomorrow if contracts were awarded only to employers who paid living wages, provided benefits, respected labor laws and didn't interfere with unionizing.

As Congress fights over tax breaks for millionaires, the administration could be changing the economic prospects of millions of low-skilled workers. Boosting pay and working conditions for, say, nursing home workers under new Medicaid rules could provide real hope to the working poor parents such as Rudee's, Dilan's and Ben's. It could start raising the pay floor for this country's laborers, so their kids no longer have to sleep on a floor.

Working for wages that don't pay the bills 08/21/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 21, 2010 4:30am]
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