Bush and Pataki Tell Workers Poverty is Good for Them

Of all the reasons that Republicans use to oppose increases in the minimum wage, none is more false – or more galling – than the claim that such increases would somehow harm minimum wage workers themselves.

Of all the reasons that Republicans use to oppose increases in the minimum wage, none is more false – or more galling – than the claim that such increases would somehow harm minimum wage workers themselves.

Since the time they unsuccessfully fought to prevent the creation of the first federal minimum wage in 1938 during the Roosevelt administration, Republican ideologues have teamed up with self-interested corporate lobbyists to oppose any increase in that wage, arguing that businesses would be forced to lay off their lowest-paid workers in order to pay for wage hikes. That’s always been a compelling argument, but it’s never been true.

As Bill Clinton recounts in his memoirs, when he asked a low-wage worker if she believed Republican claims that a minimum wage increase would force her employer to lay her off, she said, “I’ll take my chances.”

Across the nation, there are millions of Americans who can personally attest that their salary increased in 1997, the most recent time the federal minimum wage was increased. Yet opponents of such increases have yet to produce actual people who have lost jobs as a result of wage hikes.

While the Bush administration and Republican Congressional leaders oppose a hike in the federal minimum wage for workers, they certainly understand why massive wage increases are important for themselves. Congress has raised its own salary seven times since 1997. The Congressional salary of $158,000 per year is now more than 15 times the roughly $10,000 a year earned by a full-time worker at the $5.15 per hour federal minimum wage.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has reportedly told associates that he may leave his job soon because his $175,700 a year salary doesn’t pay him enough to put his children through college.

Meanwhile, throughout the country – especially throughout the industrial heartland in states like Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, and Missouri – as high-wage manufacturing jobs are replaced by low-wage service jobs, an increasing number of family heads are working at salaries at or slightly above (but gauged to) the minimum wage.  It’s no wonder that parents who are working full time are increasingly forced to utilize food pantries and soup kitchens. It’s no wonder that even statistics released by the Bush administration show that rates of hunger and food insecurity (when people are at the brink of hunger) have increased nationally in each of the years measured during which Bush has been president.  It’s hard to imagine how the president and his allies can allow the children of working parents to face hunger and still proclaim themselves champions of “family values.”

This neglect from federal policy makers has been so great that many states have taken matters into their own hands. For instance, Connecticut and Massachusetts set hourly state minimum wages at $7.10 and $6.75, respectively. Overwhelming majorities in both houses of the New York State Legislature recently voted to raise the state wage from its current level of $5.15. Yet Gov. George Pataki just vetoed the bill claiming – you guessed it – that the increase would harm low-income workers.

Pataki made the time-honored argument that the increase would drive businesses to neighboring states. But since both Connecticut and Massachusetts already have higher rates than New York – and since no one is claiming that employers are fleeing those states for New York – that argument is patently false.

But Pataki also came up with a new claim – that an increase in the state wage would reduce food stamp and earned income tax credit (EITC) benefits available to low-income families. This, too, is absurd. The vast number of hungry New Yorkers who would benefit from an increase in the state minimum wage dwarfs the very small number of those who might lose food stamps, and the even smaller number who would lose EITC benefits.

When he vetoed the state bill, Pataki claimed that he instead supported the federal wage increase. How convenient. The Republicans in Washington say this should be done by the states and Republican governors say this should be done by the feds. Apparently, the buck stops nowhere.

Further demonstrating the disingenuous nature of Pataki’s call for a federal hike is the fact that any potential loss of government benefits for a family would be exactly the same under a federal increase as under a state increase.  Plus, it is surprising that a self-proclaimed conservative such as Pataki would prefer that workers feed their families through government benefits than through self-supporting work. 

Pataki’s war against poor people hasn’t stopped there. In order to maintain tax loopholes for the wealthiest New Yorkers, he has cut funding for the main state program that provides food to soup kitchens and food pantries, thereby disarming the “armies of compassion.” And he has sought to make it more difficult for public assistance recipients to obtain the education and training they need to climb to independence, while simultaneously seeking to punish children for the supposed irresponsibility of their parents. Despite New York having some of the most expensive housing costs on the planet, the governor has even gone to court to try to limit housing payments for the state’s lowest-income families.

It’s no surprise, then, that poverty, hunger, and homelessness are skyrocketing throughout New York State. I wonder if the governor will mention that in his convention speech?

Elected officials, and especially Pataki, are fond of claiming that the aftermath of 9/11 “brought us together.”  In many ways, that was true. But by pursuing policies that increase poverty, hunger, and homelessness in order to reward the mega-rich with ever-greater tax cuts, the Republicans are pushing us further apart. Once again, Republicans have squandered an important opportunity.

Joel Berg is executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.

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Joel Berg

Senior Fellow