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A matter of justice: It’s time to end worker poverty

The Worker Dignity bill (SF 890) will improve the lives of all low-income workers and their families, boost their productivity, and stimulate the economy.

The public believes working people should not live in poverty.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Working people should not be trapped in poverty.

Sen. John Marty

This was part of the social contract America made with its people 80 years ago in the New Deal: Workers will receive a minimum wage. It may not be enough to make you rich, but you will have enough to afford necessities for your family — food, housing, clothing, medical care.

We are far from fulfilling that social contract. Economic hardship affects many: One of every three Minnesota children are in families struggling to make ends meet. One in 10 households have times when family members go hungry because they have no money for food. There are working people who go “home” from their jobs to a homeless shelter at night, because they cannot afford housing.

Many of these families feel they have been left behind, as others accumulate ever-greater wealth. Their frustration leaves some with a sense of helplessness and apathy, even about voting.

A lack of political courage

Despite ample political rhetoric about “supporting the middle class,” neither party has had the courage to back initiatives to end poverty, even among working families.

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The public believes working people should not live in poverty. The only public opinion poll I have seen on the issue (April 2000 poll conducted by Lake Snell Perry Associates for Jobs for the Future, Boston) showed a virtual consensus: 94 percent of Americans agree with the statement: “As a country, we should make sure people who work full-time are able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty.” 

People understand that this is a matter of fairness.

Back in 2007, Minnesota created a legislative commission to examine how we could end poverty by the year 2020. Our bipartisan commission recognized that justice for low-income workers means those workers need higher wages, some other means of paying for necessities, or a combination of both.

Steps beyond the minimum-wage hike

Since the Poverty Commission issued its final report in 2009, Minnesota has made little progress with the exception of last year’s increase in the minimum wage. With a public consensus that workers should not live in poverty, it is time we take action.

I introduced legislation, Senate File 890, to ensure workers can afford basic necessities: 

  • The phased-in increase in the minimum wage would continue beyond the $9.50 per hour in 2016. The legislation would add 75¢ perhour every year from 2017 through 2020, when it would reach $12.50 per hour.
  • Even at that wage level, some workers will not be able to pay for basic needs, so the legislation would more than double Minnesota’s Working Family Tax Credit — a credit designed to help working people make ends meet. The credit would jump to 120 percent of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. A one-parent, one-child family earning about $23,000 would receive $3,000 from the Minnesota credit (up from about $940, a boost of about $2,000 per year.)
  • The bill increases access to affordable child care, eliminating the 7,000-family waiting list for the Child Care Assistance Program, and substantially increasing the payments so low-income parents have a better choice of providers, and child-care providers get decent compensation.
  • To help create jobs, the proposal reestablishes the MEED (Minnesota Emergency Employment Development) jobs program, a simple but highly effective initiative to assist small businesses in hiring the unemployed. MEED, which was created during a recession 30 years ago, has been described as the most effective job-creation program in any state in the last half century.

Although this particular bill does not address health-care needs, in conjunction with proposed universal health-care legislation, this legislation would help lift all workers and their families out of poverty.

Multiple benefits for Minnesota

The Worker Dignity bill (SF 890) will improve the lives of all low-income workers and their families, boost their productivity, and stimulate the economy.

It is not a radical approach. It would not deliver economic security for workers immediately. However, it would be the biggest step toward fulfilling the goal of the Minnesota’s Commission to End Poverty by 2020.

Now, let’s talk real politics. This bill is not likely to pass because it would require both businesses and government to do more. In politics, rhetoric about supporting workers is easier than action, especially when the idea of a living wage for all workers is considered unrealistic.

That must change. The current reality, where some hardworking people can’t afford food or housing, is not acceptable. This is a matter of justice. And, with more than nine of 10 people supporting wage justice, it is a fight we can win.

John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is a state senator. He first published this article in his newsletter, “To the Point!” which is published by the Apple Pie Alliance.


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