The Insanity of the “Wage Market”, or Income Inequality at the Capitol

4 May

This is a great story about the insane juxtapositions of our time.  While DC lawmakers now talk about income inequality as a national problem, they work in a Capitol building where those who serve them food work for poverty wages:

Income inequality is more than a political sound bite to workers in the Capitol. It’s their life.

Many of the Capitol’s food servers, who make the meals, bus the tables and run the cash registers in the restaurants and carryouts that serve lawmakers, earn less than $11 an hour. Some make nothing at all when Congress is in recess.

Members of the House and Senate collect their $174,000 annual salaries whether Congress is making laws, taking a break or causing a partial government shutdown.

“This is the most important building in the world,” said Sontia Bailey, who works the cash register and stocks the shelves at the “Refectory” takeout on the Capitol’s Senate side. “You’d think our wages would be better.”

You’d think.

These jobs were privatized sometime ago.  It is a quote from the subcontractor who employs these workers that I found instructive:

In a statement, the contractor said it “takes pride in paying above-market competitive wages.” 

Here’s the thing: the contractor is not that wrong.  The market on wages is so skewed that an employer who pays people wages that keep them in poverty can actually claim to be keeping pace “with the market” or be “above-market” and think they are sounding reasonable.

I am constantly reminded of the disconnect between lawmakers and people who work in the “real world.”  Back when the minimum wage was being debated in Minnesota, Democratic lawmakers in the Senate were heard saying “Ten dollars seems high to me.”  Too high for what?

When I hear things like that, I am filled with questions.  Do you know anyone who works for that amount of money?  When is the last time you worked for minimum wage?  Can you at least do the math on how much that is a year before dismissing the amount so easily? Do you even understand that when we are debating the minimum wage, we are literally talking about the floor, about the bare minimum we as a society think a person should make while working?  Is it your core belief that someone working full-time should live below the poverty level?

We hear similar reactions not just from lawmakers but others reacting to fast food workers’ demand of “15 and a union.”  “Fifteen for flipping burgers?!?”  I’ve heard both friends and family say things like that.  I have the same questions for these folks.  Do the math.  The demand for 15 is actually not that aspirational.

The rich get richer while progressives debate the floor.

The rich get richer while progressives debate the floor.

I was thinking about this recently and thought, what if we quantified all of the things that US workers used to be able to take for granted and put them out as our demand for workers.  “I’d like to be able to own my home. I’d like to be able to send my kids to college and not have them saddled with debt afterwards. I’d like to be able to retire and be ok.”  I think if unions and other advocates actually listed the things workers used to take for granted not that long ago and called them demands — many policymakers and certainly the media would react with a “well who the hell do you think you are?”

And it’s not that the country isn’t as wealthy as it was back when this kind of quality of life as assumed.  In fact, as a whole the country is much richer.  It’s just that income is going overwhelmingly to the top income tiers while the rest are being left behind.  Things have become so skewed that the progressive movement is subsumed with debating the floor on wages while making demands that do not even come close to what we used to assume.

Just who the hell do we think we are, indeed.

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