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

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

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.

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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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/18/2015 - 08:49 am.

    Full time work

    Yes, we need to end the existence of the working poor. Part of the problem is a sub-living wage minimum wage. Another part of the problem is that each of the recent economic crashes and recoveries has resulted in a deterioration of quality jobs. Full time jobs are replaced with “full time equivalents,” which are not equivalent. They are combinations of part time jobs that do not provide full time benefits. Even if you ignore the benefits portion, individuals that must combine jobs in order to have “full time” work find themselves not only working longer hours (30 + 30 hours with no benefits), but having to find transportation between those jobs, get them scheduled out of each other’s way, and have greater need for child care, often during “off” hours (nights and weekends) where you’re going to pay more for lower quality care.

    Another issue is the temporary job. Companies are using temp agencies and contract hiring more often to push worker costs onto workers. While this might not be a bad idea if done right, it is often used to limit time on the payrolls so that the company never has to pay workers their full salaries or provide any benefits, including retirement. This not only makes workers’ income unpredictable due to the temporary nature of their jobs, but shoves the costs of later life onto the taxpayers because the worker isn’t financially prepared for a time when they can no longer work.

    In the end, low wage jobs are a cost to taxpayers because of the subsidies provided. Those subsidies rarely are efficient because they’re simply provided as a means to keep too many people from sleeping on the streets–there’s no work value and there’s little tax benefit (though everyone pays sales tax). This is not simply a bleeding heart liberal issue, it is a drag on the economy and a detriment to the future of our state and country. The more we neglect our working, productive citizens, the more drag we create.

  2. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/18/2015 - 09:00 am.

    Senate File 890…if at first you don’tsucceed, try again, yes..

    Everything you say, point-by-point Marty is valid and honorable but the sad state of this me/mine over the ‘other’ phase we seem to be stuck in is at the core of the issue…no one cares until it affects them and theirs…

    …maybe if justice was another commodity that could be bought at a discount table in Walmart, then the crowds would trample their fellow shoppers to buy it, or

    …maybe when times get a little harder for the me/mine set, stuck in a mindset and an attitude that shuns rather than shares – inequality and poverty etc being always the other guy – everyman can then identify even a wee bit…just could be, then change and equal justice will come?

    Or I suppose anyman needs to be at the bottom to look up; who knows ?

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/18/2015 - 11:03 am.

    Can we stop using the term “worker”

    in this economy? It’s a Marxist term.

    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.”

    And we do by providing everyone with 13 years of free education from which they can gain knowledge and skills to make themselves employable in a free-market economy. Anyone who is failing to earn enough didn’t take advantage of their opportunities to obtain the requisite knowledge and skills that our excellent government education has provided.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/18/2015 - 11:06 am.

    The standard right-wing response to poverty is

    to say that poor people are just lazy, stupid, and greedy. They point to individual success stories of people who worked their way up from poverty, but there’s always something they leave out of the story: the penniless immigrant’s family were professionals in the Old Country, one entrepreneur persuaded a relative to lend him start-up money, another entrepreneur happened to live at a time when his industry was so new that literally anyone could enter it, a teacher noticed the brilliance of that inner city kid and guided him through the college and scholarship application process, a wealthy woman noticed that the young girl who cleaned her house had a beautiful voice and paid for her to attend college and a conservatory.

    The average working poor family is struggling so hard to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table that it’s hard to think of anything but how to make it through the week.

    I wish every smug middle-class or upper-class person who thinks that the working poor are just lazy or unambitious could trade places with one of them for a month without any access to their own resources. I think it would be a great bit of experiential learning.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/18/2015 - 02:38 pm.

      “The standard right-wing response to poverty is to say that poor people are just lazy, stupid, and greedy.”

      Written three minutes after Mr. Tester’s remark, though you couldn’t see his at the time. How spot-on you are, Karen.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/19/2015 - 12:29 am.

        And that’s not all

        The jobs that low-wage workers do are necessary. Even if all the current poor people followed Mr. Tester’s advice and somehow managed to become doctors, lawyers, and business executives, someone would still have to do society’s difficult, dangerous, and dirty jobs.

        There’s an article in the current issue of Harper’s about how major corporations are now treating workers (and yes, that’s what they are) as interchangeable parts and scheduling them by computer for unpredictable and inconsistent shifts and giving them increasingly stressful quotas to fulfill with fewer people on staff.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/19/2015 - 08:07 am.

          When you call people “workers”

          you can expect them to be treated like interchangeable parts. It’s true that there will always be ditch diggers. The objective is to avoid being one. When I used to drive my kids to school in the morning, whenever we drove past an indigent person, I would point to him and say “See that guy? He didn’t do his homework.” It’s called incentive. None of my kids are poor. I grew up poor, so maybe you can’t relate, Karen.

          The bible says that the poor will always be with us. Our job as parents is to ensure that our kids aren’t among them. If we all focused on that, whatever government programs did exist would be for fewer people and for whom were truly helpless.

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/19/2015 - 03:19 pm.

            Quoting the Bible out of context

            When Jesus says “The poor always ye have with you,” he’s not making a recommendation. He’s not saying,”Be sure you always keep some people poor.”

            The context in John 12:1-8. Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus feet with an expensive perfume. Judas Iscariot grumbles and says, “That money should have been given to the poor.” The text explicitly says (in the King James version) “This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.”

            In this context, Jesus says, “Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.
            For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.”

            Sound familiar? “Public education harms the poor, the minimum wage harms the poor, food stamps harm the poor..” In other words, using the poor as an excuse for one’s own self-interest is a tactic at least 2,000 years old.


          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/19/2015 - 03:25 pm.

            By the way, the main article in this month’s issue of Harper’s

            is all about employers treating employees (if you find the word “worker” an objectionable term for referring to people who work) as interchangeable parts, to the extent that they have to scramble in response to abrupt changes in hours, sometimes from day to day, adding to their difficulties with childcare, transportation, continuing education, and holding down that second job they need to survive.

            Read that article, and then ask if you would like to live that way.

            What is wrong with employers who impose on employees working conditions that they themselves would never put up with? They must think of their employees–the ones who do the real work of the company–as a lesser species of human beings without real lives.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/19/2015 - 07:12 am.

      Experimental Learning

      The bit about taking someone’s life for a month to see how they live had been done already. It’s a booked called “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” by Barbara Ehrenreich, who took three jobs around the country, each one for a month to see if she could make the next month’s rent. One of the jobs was even a Walmart job here in the Twin Cities. The other two were a hotel cleaning job and a home cleaning job.

      It’s a quick read and well worth people’s time to check out, no matter what your political stripe is. A real eye-opener on what it takes just to get a place to rent, let along food on the table and medicine for ailments.

  5. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 02/18/2015 - 03:53 pm.

    This is so necessary!

    Thanks, Sen. Marty. This should be a no-brainer.

  6. Submitted by Amy Farland on 02/18/2015 - 06:00 pm.

    minimum wage

    Perhaps the good Senator woud like to tell the readers just how many minimum wage workers were carved out of the last bill that was passed … and how many were included in that legislation? I’d love to see those figures.

    Perhaps the fine journalists at MinnPost could do some journalistic work and find out? huh?

    cause the National Retail Federation says 98% of retail and food workers in the US work for small businesses .. and small businesses were carved out… and i know an awful lot of retail and food workers work for very paltry wages. and the same National Retail Federation says that food and retail is the largest industry in MN.

    And now the MN GOP wants to exempt non-profits from the minimum wage bill too. and teenagers are exempt. and who else was exempted? but Sen. Marty is going to fix that by adding a whole 75 cents an hour down the road a couple of years out. a couple of times. to some of the other workers.

    So, how many workers are exempt so far? and if non-profits are exempted, how many more? and how many workers are actually covered? and can you split out servers? please?

    i’d sure like to see some numbers so we know what the legislature reallly did and what Sen. Marty is really offering to poor folks.

    • Submitted by George Hulme on 02/18/2015 - 10:56 pm.


      “i’d sure like to see some numbers so we know what the legislature reallly did and what Sen. Marty is really offering to poor folks.”

      ^^^ The Senator isn’t offering anything to poor people. He is working on legislation that would demand others do so. An admirable thing, not.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/18/2015 - 08:50 pm.

    Please explain

    Can Mr. Marty explain why Oregon and Washington State have higher poverty level than Minnesota while until recently they used to have a much higher minimum wage? I would also like to know why he doesn’t suggest increasing minimum wage to $20 per hour. And don’t people earning minimum wage get food stamps and welfare?

    As for “standard right-wing” stuff, I personally know people who managed to get to solid middle class just through their hard work. But even examples given by Ms. Sandness do not disprove this “right-wing” thing: a teacher wouldn’t have noticed the brilliance in a kid if he were lazy and a wealthy woman would not have helped a young woman if she were late to work all the time. As for those “penniless immigrants” who were professionals in the old country – that is my family… except I had to completely change my occupation in America and my wife had to learn English practically from scratch because she earns her money by talking…

    And I understand that things happen and it is possible to do everything right and still be left behind and in poverty… but that is not a typical case and we need to be honest about that.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/19/2015 - 07:32 am.


      Your assertion that there’s a lot of upward mobility appears to be completely contrary to reality. This is from an article by the New Yorker.

      “Seventy per cent of people born into the bottom quintile of income distribution never make it into the middle class, and fewer than ten per cent get into the top quintile. Forty per cent are still poor as adults. What the political scientist Michael Harrington wrote back in 1962 is still true: most people who are poor are poor because “they made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents.” The middle class isn’t all that mobile, either: only twenty per cent of people born into the middle quintile ever make it into the top one. And although we think of U.S. society as archetypally open, mobility here is lower than in most European countries.”

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/19/2015 - 10:42 am.

      I can speak to the situation in Oregon and Washington

      Until recently, Oregon and Washington were dependent on the timber industry, because they had vast forests of various kinds of conifers. However, the forest products companies clear-cut most of the best trees, which left bare hillsides subject to erosion and endangered wildlife. Meanwhile, it takes time to grow new trees, so a lot of loggers and sawmill operators and other low-level employees in the timber industry are out of work.

      So far, nothing has come in to replace the timber industry except a bit of tourism in some areas. There is some urban poverty in those states, as there is any urban area, but most of the poverty there is rural and has nothing to do with the minimum wage, since there aren’t enough jobs at any price in the dying lumber towns.

      I’m not as familiar with Washington as with Oregon, but for years, Oregon has been plagued by libertarian-leaning Republicans who seem to think that taxes are the worst thing that can happen to a human being and an initiative system that has been hijacked by right-wing cranks who write deceptively worded ballot measures that create unfunded mandates. That is, they pass a referendum, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, that requires the state to spend money (e.g. building more prison space) but without a funding source, so that the money for the new prison space has to come out of the existing budget. As a result, schools, parks, roads, and other amenities are starved for funds.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/19/2015 - 07:47 pm.

        Please check the facts

        Mr. Hintz, I never claimed that there is a lot of upward mobility – I just said that it is possible with hard work. Unfortunately, as Mr. Johnson noted, if people do not have incentives to work hard and move up, they will not. If basic needs are met, many people will be satisfied and would not attempt to get ahead.

        Ms. Sandness, Oregon has not had a Republican governor since 1986 and voted for Democratic presidential candidate since 1988. So all those scary “libertarian-leaning Republicans” ruining it for Oregonians are imaginary… Also, Oregon and Washington State have very strong high technology industry – similar to Minnesota. In fact, they are very similar to Minnesota demographically, politically, and economically. So obviously, their high poverty level shows complete lack of correlation between high minimum wage and poverty.

  8. Submitted by Amy Farland on 02/19/2015 - 06:22 am.

    GDP v. wagesq

    According to our latest national GDP, the average american worker produces $140,000 in value/product. The average American worker wage is $27,000. Something is wrong in Denmark. and Sen. Marty’s bill and current Minnesota minimum wage law, which has only managed to codify poverty as a condition of live in Minnesota is not dealing with the problem. Or helping Minnesota’s poor, or working class or middle class.

    Someing far more drastic and fundamental needs to be done. Our country has wage inequity that rivals banana republics. It is not seen anywhere else in developed countries. No where else. And if we had journalists who were not part of the elite and newspapers who were not shilling for the elite, the general population would be aware of these facts.

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/19/2015 - 10:13 am.

    “What Work Is”

    “The sad refusal to give into rain,
    the hours wasted waiting to the
    knowledge that somewhere ahead
    a man is waiting who will say
    “No we are not hiring today”…Philip Levine, 1928-2015

  10. Submitted by cory johnson on 02/19/2015 - 11:26 am.

    This article doesn’t see the irony…

    In that mobility has decreased as the “War on Poverty” has been implemented. The dirty secret is that social welfare is designed to keep people right where they are and dependent on the politicians who profess to help them.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/21/2015 - 03:44 pm.

      So what do you suggest instead?

      Private charity? The private charities are already overwhelmed.

      How about corporations bringing back the jobs they shipped overseas, the jobs that used to provide a leg up into the middle class?

      Look, poor people exist, and unless you want to exterminate all of them (I hope you don’t), there are only three courses of action: pay them a living wage, put them on full or partial benefits, or pay for them in the form of funding prisons for those who commit crimes out of desperation.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/21/2015 - 09:04 pm.

        Please respond

        Ms. Sandness, please define a living wage. Two people earning current minimum wage can easily survive and no one said that a separate apartment is a necessity – finding a roommate is not that difficult. By the way, you never responded to my showing that Oregon has been a left-leaning state for decades…

        • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/22/2015 - 07:25 pm.

          It’s complicated, but here goes:

          Oregon’s Republicans used to be like the Republicans I remember growing up: decent, level-headed people who weren’t into hating the poor, vilifying anyone left of Reagan, or cozying up to the fundamentalist Christians. Living in one of the most beautiful states in the country, they were environmentally conscious. It was they who introduced the nation’s first beverage bottle recycling, introduced land use planning, and declared that the state’s ocean beaches would always be open to everyone and could not be fenced off or treated as private property. Senator Mark Hatfield was a good example, and he is the only Republican I ever voted for.

          Then in the late 1980s, almost overnight, the G.O.P. turned into reactionary the party that we see today in both Minnesota and Oregon.

          The rural areas were always more Libertarian than anything else, although they voted Republican, while the cities became more Democratic than before.

          The Democrats and the Libertarian wing of the Republican Party have been able to agree on things like decriminalizing marijuana and assisted suicide. This alliance on behavioral issues makes Oregon appear more liberal than it really is.

          But on economic issues, the Republican and Democratic Parties of Oregon are just as far apart as they are here.

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 02/23/2015 - 09:20 pm.

            Still not clear

            Ms. Sandness, I still do not see an explanation of how those Republicans ruined the state if, as I pointed out, exactly at the time they got bad (late 80’s), Oregonians began voting Democrats all the time… So the high poverty rate is the result of Democratic policies and high minimum wage may be one of them. I also wonder why you think that present day Republicans hate the poor. I hope not because they are against setting minimum wage because the Oregon example shows that it doesn’t help the poor…

  11. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/19/2015 - 03:36 pm.

    Well met. He was a great poet.

  12. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/21/2015 - 10:24 am.

    This is just silly. Yes

    This is just silly.

    Yes there are people who, through no fault of their own, struggle through life. But for the vast, overwhelming majority, the predictors of poverty are well known:
    – Single parenthood
    – Substance abuse
    – Lack of education
    – All three combined

    In short, poor decision making.

    As Dennis pointed out, we spend vast amounts of public treasure preparing kids for life. We spend vast amounts on a social safety net for those that waste the opportunity. It’s enough that the poor in this country live lives that would be considered very comfortable in many other parts of the world, we do not need to further subsidize failure.

    • Submitted by Mark Ohm on 02/21/2015 - 08:17 pm.

      Poor decision making?

      Read this story and realize Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is in full force: you can’t get an education if you don’t have a home and clothing and food. Poverty is a cycle and needs direct intervention to break it. It’s a little bit more than decision-making and choices, I think. Like socks for example:

      “It started last school year when a second-grader took off her shoes during a relaxation exercise. Shanley thought the girl was wearing wooden clogs. But the girl told her she didn’t have any socks, so she took brown paper towels, and wet them to form to her tiny feet.

      Since then, Shanley has given out 150 pairs of socks. Her friends and family now give her pairs of socks as gifts, bringing her stockpile to more than 200 pairs.

      Precious was one of Shanley’s star students last year. But something troubling happened at home over the summer. Shanley declined to offer specifics.

      One day, Shanley pulled her into the hallway and gave her the long, warm socks. She told Precious she wanted things to be the way they were before, and for Precious to trust her and know that she was there to help.

      Precious’ attitude changed the next day, Shanley said. Precious was no longer acting out. She began leaving notes for Shanley.

      Before winter break, Precious sent Shanley a note. “Thank you Mrs. Shanley for loving me. For caring for me. For giving me them socks. For giving me every single peace of your heart,” she wrote. “For accepting me into your class to learn. For giving me every peace of your love. And number one for thanking God for being my teacher.”

      Precious never returned to class after break. Shanley later learned Precious’ parents lost their home and moved in with a relative.”

      This is one of the most heartbreaking things I have read. At least Rep. Marty is trying to address the issue. I am so tired of the position, which is: “It’s their fault. They made bad choices.”

      Guess what: everyone makes bad choices. When you start out on third base and fall back to second, you can still get home. When you start out at home and fall back to the dugout, you’ll never score.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/22/2015 - 07:31 am.

        The girl in the story is suffering the third path to poverty because her parent(s) are involved in one or both of the first two.

        Why does she have no socks? There are charity clothes available year round. Her caregiver is clearly not capable of doing the job.

        So what do we do, dump more money into the dysfunctional situation?

        Listen. I grew up in a 1 parent family with 4 brothers and sisters. I know about charity clothes because I wore them. I know about taking shopping carts full of pop bottles to the store and using the refund money for hamburger helper.

        We were poor because my father was an alcoholic who abandoned us. It was the best thing he ever did for us. My brothers and sisters and I live comfortable lives today because my mom hounded us about school. She took her responsibility as a parent seriously.

        Money won’t instill responsibility in people who don’t know the meaning.

        If you want to break the cycle, you have to remove the kids from the chaos, not subsidize it.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/22/2015 - 09:20 am.

        None of which

        has anything to do with John Marty’s “government solution.”

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