“While Gail and I were wrapping silverware in napkins (the only task during which we were allowed to sit down), she confessed that she was thinking of running away from her shared apartment and moving to the Days Inn hotel. Do not think about paying between 40 and 60 dollars a day? “Gail left the cutlery in the bar, rolled her eyes and said surprised:” And, where do you want me to take out a month’s rent and another one of bail to live on my own? ‘In poverty, the way you start is everything.’
This is a paragraph adapted from the book Nickel and Dimed , by the American journalist Bárbara Ehrenreich. The author wants to discover how the people who earn the minimum wage in her country survive, and she decides to experience it herself: she temporarily renounces her well-to-do life and dedicates herself to working in low- paid and low-paid positions, unskilled, low-wage jobs . In the first one he meets Gail, a middle-aged woman who serves tables and refills Dijon mustard containers under the scrutiny of her supervisor and spends half of her income renting a room she shares with someone she would not have chosen as a friend
With some variations, Gail’s is the situation of millions of employees in the United States : despite working throughout their lives full-time living in precariousness because they receive the minimum wage stipulated, $ 7.25 per hour, that the often leaves below the poverty line (estimated at $ 11,170 per person and $ 23,050 for a family of four). Often they can not save, acquire basic medical insurance or access housing in conditions. Sometimes they end up spending almost all their salary on temporary accommodation, such as hotels, because they can not accumulate two months of rent to enter a flat. Some live in houses on wheels ( mobile homes ) or in caravans, and when the money no longer reaches them, they begin their journey through family homes and shelters. Others sleep in their car or on the street, and wash in the toilets of the public library or one of the ubiquitous Starbucks. They suffer obesity, diabetes or other diseases related to a diet in which chicken nuggets are repeated a lot, because fruit and vegetables are for those who earn more. It is very difficult for them and the following generations to get out of that circle and improve, because the combination of economic scarcity and strenuous work numbs the senses. It is not the working class. It’s the poor working class. It should be an oxymoron, but in the world we live in it is not.
The minimum wage in the United States
In this country the federal minimum wage was established in 1938 ($ 0.25 per hour). “A fair payment for a fair day,” proclaimed President Roosevelt when he presented his bill before Congress. But since then it has not always risen in relation to the cost of living and inflation. At present, according to poverty indicators, it seems evident that you can not live with dignity if you only have a salary of 7.25 dollars per hour, one of the lowest among rich countries.
The current government has proposed to increase to $ 9 : “Nobody who works full time should live in poverty,” proclaimed President Obama in his speech on the state of the nation in February this year. This increase would not be a big change, of course. There will still be working people who are in great need, who ask for credit cards at a 25% interest rate to cover essential expenses, or who have to choose between going to the doctor or paying the electric bill. As one of Barbara Ehrenheich’s coworkers in Maine: when she dislocated her ankle she kept scrubbing tables and sweeping floors without mentioning anything. But that increase would set a level somewhat closer to the price of life and bring the minimum wage closer to an amount that can be lived. A working wage would also be a living wage .
A recent survey published by the Pew Research Center shows the response of the population to the initiative of the Obama Administration: about a third are reluctant to change that, for three main reasons: the first, because it could lead to destruction of employment, the automation of services and the increase in the cost of products. For example, an investigation by the University of California-Irvine highlights the correlation between wage increases and the loss of low-skilled jobs. The second, because only 3% of workers in the country receive a basic income, and half of these are young people between the ages of 16 and 24. In addition, many receive government aid, such as food stamps, and tax reductions for work income. Finally, in some countries with a strong economy and low unemployment there is no minimum wage, as is the case in Germany, Finland, Norway or Sweden. And in others, like Spain, it has been proposed to eliminate it.
However, other research suggests that the salary increase would improve the national economy as it would, among other things, reduce government aid, encourage rent and purchase of better housing and avoid diseases related to such a stressful life. The destruction of employment and rising prices, if any, would be insignificant in relation to the benefit that would represent increasing the purchasing power of the several million workers living in misery. More than those officially known. Because the percentage, if analyzed well, is well above the 3% collected by the Census Bureau: this figure does not include tipped staff , nor certain employees such as newspaper delivery workers or babysitters, nor students, since employers are exempt from paying the minimum wage to all these groups, which together total two million people. Nor does it include those who have a fixed remuneration, not hours. Not even undocumented immigrants, who we hire to pick up fruit from the fields because we do not want to do it. Nor, of course, to trainees, who earn nothing. There are many millions who exchange their time for very few dollars a month, many of them adults and some parents without any other source of income.
As for the argument regarding the rich countries without minimum remuneration, in these there are generally more employment regulations than in the United States to guarantee the rights of the worker. And in particular in Germany, the first European power, it has already been proposed to set it at 8.5 euros per hour (11.6 dollars).
A country of rich and poor
The debate that arises in this article has its origin in the profound discontent of the American population in the face of the progressive pauperization of the middle class and socioeconomic disparity in the country, more typical of populist or authoritarian regimes. In 2012, the highest salaried 10% took 50% of the country’s income. A minimum hired employee must work three months to earn the same as a chief executive in one hour. Most of the businesses that hire minimum wage have a workforce of more than 100 workers and makes substantial profits, and some are chains with annual benefits of billionaires, such as WalMart, which strongly opposes a change in legislation and whose motto is “Save money and live better.”
Bárbara, the writer turned into a waitress at the beginning of the article, soon discovers that she has to make a double day to continue paying her rent of 500 dollars a month. He works from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, in two restaurants, and he takes some Aleve aspirins between shifts and shifts to stop muscle pain. He spends more than an hour a day on the road, which takes away the little time available to look for other job opportunities that are better paid. The decisions you make are not the smartest, but the only viable ones according to your budget. Dinner two-dollar hamburgers laden with sauce and crushed in paper, destines the 20 dollars a day of tips for gasoline and food in the supermarket, and when he gets home at night deposits the four remaining bills in a pantry drawer, for emergencies .
Studies on the possible salary increase are still scarce and show divergent results, as I point above. It can not be anticipated precisely what would be the effect of a rise in incomes in the country’s economy. But let’s appeal to common sense: is there someone who is reading these lines and who has not worked at all eight hours a day without being able to sit down and at the end of the month has charged a sum so low that the first week of basic needs disappears? Who has not endured some kind of unfair treatment of their superiors despite having spent years in that company for a pay that never allows him to progress, that marginalizes him gradually? Who has not had jobs already in his adult age in which he earned so little that he calculated some expenses in ridiculous amounts of cents?
In a democratic and developed country the remuneration of a full-time employee should not plunge him into poverty, much less if those employees are counted by millions, while a minority accounts for half of the national salary and a good number of entrepreneurs have margins marital extraordinary. That idea should be the starting point when debating a reform.