Low Wages don’t come Cheap

By Pete Dolack Published: April 15, 2015

fast food worker

When we think of the externalization of costs by capitalist enterprises, we think of environmental damage or infrastructure. But low wages are another burden foisted onto society, costing the public more than $150 billion annually in the United States.

So widespread have low wages become that a majority of federal and state money going toward public-assistance programs are paid to people who are part of a working family. This amounts to one more subsidy for U.S. business, already the recipients of massive largesse.

When it is impossible to live on meager wages — a position tens of millions of U.S. families find themselves in — there is no alternative to turning to public-assistance programs. The scale of this was calculated by researchers at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and released this month in their paper, “The High Public Cost of Low Wages.”

The authors of the report, Ken Jacobs, Ian Perry and Jenifer MacGillvary, examined the cost to the federal government and the 50 state governments for four programs — the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the food stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). Almost three-quarters of those enrolling in at least one of these programs is a member of a working family, defined as a family with at least one member who works at least 10 hours a week for at least 27 weeks in a year.

Overall, $153 billion from these four programs goes to working families, representing 56 percent of total public-assistance spending by the federal and state governments.

This massive amount of public money represents a subsidy of corporations. The less they spend on wages and benefits, the more goes to profits, which are ultimately stuffed into the bloated bank accounts of corporate executives and financiers.

Fast-food workers, child care workers and home care workers are heavily represented among those who depend on public assistance to supplement their subpar wages — about half of all the employees in these three industries. That is no surprise. What might be surprising is the increasing prevalence of this in “white-collar” fields. Twenty-five percent of adjunct college professors receive public assistance! So much for “lack of education” as the cause of stagnant or falling wages, as right-wing apologists for growing inequality like to claim.

The Berkeley Center report broke down the public-assistance money by state, which reveals some interesting statistics. The state with the highest share of public-assistance money going to members of working families is none other than Texas. A full two-thirds of federal and state public-assistance money in that state goes to working families. Something to keep in mind next time you hear former Texas Governor Rick Perry, a past and possibly future presidential candidate, drone on about Texas creating more jobs than any other state. The official web site of the current Texas governor, tea party extremist Greg Abbott, brags about the state’s alleged plentiful “good jobs for hard-working Texans,” declaring that “It’s not bragging if it’s true.”

In reality, if so many Texans rely on food stamps and other government programs to survive, not too many of those jobs pay well. The tax system there is also regressive — Texas has no state income tax, but it has high sales and property taxes structured to disproportionately place the burden of taxes on the poor and middle class. The top 1 percent of Texans pay an effective tax rate of 3.2 percent, while a middle-income Texan pays a higher tax rate than a middle-income Californian, according to a Washington Monthly analysis.

It’s not only Texas, however, even if it is done on a larger scale there. Higher-paying jobs have been disappearing in the U.S., with the most growth since 2010 in low-wage jobs paying less than $13.33 an hour. At the same time, the number of people enduring long-term unemployment because of the weak economy has sharply risen in the U.S., Canada, European Union, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the increased harshness of employment practices, more families may be needing public assistance. A particularly brutal practice, “on-time scheduling,” has become so pervasive that New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has launched an investigation into 13 retailers. This is a practice in which workers are told what shift to work with less than one day’s notice, making it impossible for them to make arrangements for personal and family needs.

The scale of how far backwards we have traveled is that the Obama administration is offering U.S. minimum-wage workers two-thirds of what was demanded 50 years ago. One of the demands of the March on Washington in 1963 was a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, $2 an hour in 1963 would be worth $15.34 today. Yet the federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. So the $15 an hour campaign that has rapidly grown over the past year is agitating for nothing outlandish. Nor will $15 an hour for someone who supports a family lead to a life in luxury.

Raises most certainly can be afforded. U.S. corporations were sitting on about $5 trillion of cash as of 2011, a figure that undoubtedly has since grown. The massive hoards of cash, bloated salaries and bonuses for executives and financiers, and the starvation wages endured by so many all come with a cost — a cost borne by working people. There are not only no free lunches for working people, you are paying for the lunches and dinners of the wealthy besides your own lunch.

About the Author
Pete Dolack is an activist and writer who currently analyzes the ongoing economic crisis, and the political and environmental issues connected to it, on the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been active with several groups, currently with TradeJustice New York Metro.

He is the author of the book It's Not Over: Lessons from the Socialist Experiment, an analysis of the 20th century's attempts to create alternatives to capitalism that proposes to draw lessons for emerging and future movements seeking answers to the political and economic crises of today, due to be published by Zero Books in late 2015.

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