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William P. Quigley

Ending Poverty as We Know It
Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage

William P. Quigley

Q&A with William Quigley, author of Ending Poverty as We Know It

Q: You propose a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every person the right to a job at a living wage. How is this better than advocating for another increase in the minimum wage?
A: I think this proposal is better in at least three ways. First, it creates the goal of a living wage, not a minimum wage. The minimum wage is roughly half what a living wage would be. Under this approach, people are entitled to a living wage. Second, it links the right to a living wage with the right to a job. A right to a living wage is no good if you don't have a job that pays it. This guarantees everyone who wants to work the opportunity to do so. Third, by putting both the right to a living wage and the right to a job into the constitution it sets up a permanent method for enforcing these rights. It now literally takes an act of congress to raise the pitifully low minimum wage. If these rights are placed into our constitution, there would be many ways to make sure they are met.

Q: What is the minimum wage now? Has the minimum wage kept up with the cost of living? How have minimum wage workers fared when you look at the value of the minimum wage today compared to prior decades?
A: The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. It has not kept up with inflation and has not been raised for years. If today's minimum wage was worth as much as the minimum wage was in the late 1960s, it would be over $8.00 an hour. Minimum wage workers did much better in past decades than they are doing now. They are going backwards, fast.

Q: Exactly how much money are you proposing we pay our minimum wage earners? In other words, what is a "living wage?" How did you derive it?
A: I suggest a living wage is at least $10.50 an hour for a single worker with no dependents if the employer does not pay health insurance, and $8.50 an hour if the employer pays for health insurance. If the worker is supporting children, then the living wage would have to be higher. The additional money for workers supporting family members could be put into their paychecks by tax credits. The actual hourly dollar figure for the living wage is arrived at by figuring out how much it actually costs to support yourself. Many organizations have calculated the actual cost of supporting yourself, that is where the figure comes from.

Q: We have been led to believe that there is no way we can guarantee good jobs at good wages for our citizens because the free market will not allow it. What do you mean, "there is no free market"?
A: I say that there is no such thing as a free market because all of our markets have rules that help businesses and others that require businesses to do something. Ask any accountant, business lobbyist, or corporate lawyer. Business in this world takes place in a highly structured setting. There are all kinds of local, state, and federal laws and rules out there which help businesses and employers. There are also some rules and regulations which require them to do things they do not want to do. Every single day in every single city council, state legislature and in Congress, there are lobbyists and lawyers working to change the rules and laws to benefit their business clients. There is no company in the USA which does not take advantage of these tax credits, special business opportunities, legislation and rules. All this proposal is asking for is that one of the rules becomes that every person have a right to work and to become self-supporting by earning a living wage.

Q: Opponents also argue that paying higher wages is unaffordable for businesses, fuels inflation, and causes higher unemployment as businesses respond to increased labor costs by laying off workers. How do you reply to that?
A: The first response is that we are already paying a very high cost for a system which allows low wages and high unemployment. Each one of us is subsidizing low wage work and unemployment right now, through our tax dollars, through our churches and neighborhood organizations and all the other ways that we pay for food, shelter, child care, medical care and transportation for the poor. But it is true that here is no such thing as a free lunch. What this means is that we as a society will have to pay a price for giving every person the chance to work and earn enough to support themselves and their families. Social security costs money, medical care for the elderly costs money, but we have found a way to make them work. Though they still have problems we have always found ways to make them work and we always will. The same will happen with this proposal. If the people want it, it will happen and we will find the way. The second response is that people ought to remember our history. Every single effort to make social progress, from outlawing child labor to medicare to social security to paying a minimum wage, has been opposed by people who say it would fatally wreck the economy. Such criticism is expected. If people agree that every person ought to have the right to a job that pays a living wage, we can find a way to make it happen without wrecking the economy.

Q: Tell us about other times in U.S. history when a guaranteed right to employment or a living wage was seriously considered. What did Thomas Pane propose in 1791? Tell us a few of the many things Franklin Delano Roosevelt said about full employment at a living wage.
A: Making sure that every person has a chance to work and earn a living wage is not a new idea. In 1791 Thomas Paine published The Rights of Man and proposed that the government set up places where anyone who wanted to work could find a job. They would be paid room and board plus some money for working, no questions asked. Since the 1800s cities such as Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and others have set up public works projects to give people jobs when unemployment was high. In 1937 FDR said it was time that our nation “should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

Q: Isn't amending the Constitution a hard, time-consuming and politically demanding task? How specifically would the process of implementing your proposed amendment operate?
A: Yes, amending the Constitution is tough and takes time. The Constitution is our promise to ourselves and we take it seriously so it should not be lightly changed. That is exactly why a constitutional amendment is needed. This discussion has to happen in all 50 states and in both houses of congress. It is a big step. It is an important step. And it should not happen unless the people want it to happen. The first step is to start a serious discussion about what our nation
wants for the people who work and still are poor. We have not had that discussion. We have talked for years about moving people off of welfare into jobs. Now we need to take the next step and talk about moving people who work and are still poor out of poverty. Most everyone I know of agrees that people ought to have the chance to work if they want to and ought to be able to support themselves and their families if they work. We need to start figuring out how to make that happen. This amendment will add to that discussion.

Q: You maintain that "most of what the general public believes about poverty and work is inaccurate." What do you mean? Many people think that the lack of education is keeping some people out of the job market. How do you respond to this claim?
A: I think there are many common myths about poverty out there. Many people think the solution to poverty is for people to get a job. That is just plain wrong. Tens of millions of people are already working and they are still poor. Lack of education is certainly a problem that our nation needs to address. But should people have to wait for jobs or decent wages until our nation solves our educational problems? I don’t think so. Each person, no matter what their education, deserves respect as a human being. If a person is poorly educated or undereducated, they are still a person. They are still parents. They deserve a chance to work and support themselves and their families while we as a nation work on our educational problems.

Q: Some theorists think that millions of unemployed are good for the nation. In fact, the current policy of the Federal Reserve nearly dictates that some percentage of the workforce must be unemployed in order to fight inflation. How do you respond to those arguments?
A: You are right that some economists think that the nation has to have several million people out of work in order to keep inflation down. I think most people think that is wrong. We cannot in fairness say that millions of workers have to be denied the chance to work so that those of us who are employed will be better off. The unemployed are people just like us, they just don’t have jobs. I think we as a nation can find a way to allow every person to work and earn a living wage if we put our minds to it. That is why this needs to be in the constitution, to keep the importance of jobs at good wages always on our national agenda.

Q: How has Clinton-era welfare reform affected the working poor?
A: Welfare reform was very good at changing non-working poor people into working poor people. It was not very good at changing working poor people into working people who can earn enough to support themselves and their families.

Q: Why is the minimum wage not indexed for inflation, while Social Security is?
A: Political pressure made Congress index Social Security benefits so they rose each year with inflation. That is exactly what it will take to create a living wage and to allow it to rise each year with inflation.

Q: Adding the guarantee of a right to a job with a living wage to the Constitution will not instantly make that a reality. What will bring it about?
A: Putting an idea into the constitution, like the right to vote, does not automatically make it happen. It takes Congress, the Executive Branch, the Courts, and ultimately the people to make that promise a reality. Putting it into the Constitution is a big step, but you are right, it is only the first of many.

Q: How popular are movements for living wages? About how many jurisdictions in the country currently have living wage ordinances? About how many other are working on enacting them? What is the substance of most of these ordinances?
A: Living wage laws have been passed by more than 75 cities in the US. They are very popular with cities and voters. They are very unpopular with low-wage industries like the restaurant and hotel lobbies who have tried in courts and in state legislatures to make cities stop passing these laws. Most living wage ordinances say that any business doing business with the city has to pay their employees living wages, usually something in the neighborhood of what I am proposing, $10.50 an hour if the do not pay health insurance, and less if they do pay health insurance.


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