It is always a matter of amazement to many that in the richest country in the world, so many live in grinding poverty, and many of those people are in work. Yet every move to raise the minimum wage for workers is met with howls of protest. (And not just in America: the syndrome is repeated everywhere.) But this pic illustrates how the public in America misunderstand what’s really at stake, as opposed to the populist bias against low paid workers.
In a general sense, it has always fascinated me how every rise in the standards for the poorest working people is invariably met with two canards from the politico-business community … “People will lose their jobs, employers wont be able to afford it!” and “the market should decide!”
Those were exactly the cries when David Lloyd George introduced the People’s Budget in the UK over a hundred years ago, and again when the UK brought in National Insurance … and you hear the same waffle today about Obamacare – not from those who will benefit, of course, but from those to whom it doesn’t matter, directed against those for whom it desperately does.
But time and again, when working people DO make an advance, people aren’t thrown out of work, businesses somehow keep making mega bucks, and we also know that left to its own devices the market invariably acts as if workers have no real rights or needs at all.
I think we need to seize back these debates in our own homes, around our own dinner tables, and with our friends and neighbours and work colleagues. In short, it’s time we recovered our decency.
We seem somehow to have lost, more’s the pity, the simple idea that it is the legitimate role of the state – acting collectively on our behalf – to support and empower the least powerful in our community, not with hand outs, but with hand ups. So they may look after their own, and so they may make a full-hearted contribution to our society and our economy. The most important hand up you can give anyone is a job, with a reasonable living wage.
I grew up as a member of the working poor, albeit in a nice neighbourhood of a genteel seaside town.
My father died when I was 2. Mum had little or no money put by, and worked long hours to ensure we had everything we needed. My older (adult) brother, who had fallen on his feet, topped up our household income, or we would have been in dire straights indeed.
From the age of 14, I never had a school holiday when I didn’t work. I wasn’t working for pocket money. I was working to make a genuine contribution to our household income. I was a part-time wage earner: my age was irrelevant.
I delivered papers, got up at 4 am and worked as a relief postman, made what must have added up to millions of cups of tea in beach cafes, sold ice-creams in a booth that was five feet by six feet in which I worked an eight hour day sometimes in blistering heat, then changed my togs and toted baskets of prawns and cockles around pubs late at night, worked as a sous-chef (including on Christmas Day), and so on.
I never took one penny of social security money.
But then, as today, I was grateful for legislation that guaranteed that I was not working for slave wages, and for trade unions who loomed in the background like avenging angels, the very mention of which would ensure management would not seek to “put one over on us”.
And assuredly, sometimes those unions went too far, or were needlessly obstructive. But many times a local union rep was a decent fellow who had a fair working relationship with the local boss, and they would work things through in a good natured way, and those with no stake beyond their labour were thus de-marginalised, brought into the process, and consulted.
My mother proudly noted that we never took a cent from any other member of the family other than my brother, and there were plenty of Uncles who could have chucked in a few bob and never noticed.
“Everything you’ve got, we paid for.” she would say, with a steely glint in her eye. “Never forget, Son, love them all you want, like I do, but you owe them nothing.”
It was that sort of home. Even then, as a die-hard lifelong Conservative, she was nevertheless deeply grateful for the representation she received at work from her Union, believing that she paid her dues uncomplainingly and deserved good representation.
As right-wing as they came, she simply didn’t trust employers to do the right thing spontaneously out of the goodness of their hearts: my Mum was nothing if not a realist.
When Friedmanite economics and the new Right (backed by the new Left, who should have known better) swept away many of these protections – when we were all, suddenly, free market capitalists – we may well have made the world more efficient. But we also made it colder, and less humane. We lost something of ourselves.
We lost our decency. Collectively. And we should all stand up and say so.
Over 100 years ago, when he introduced the People’s Budget in 1909, Lloyd George said:
“This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping and believing that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty, and the wretchedness and human degradation which always follows in its camp, will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests”.
As we schlep wearily into the last ten days of a general election campaign in Australia between two essentially identical right wing parties, that’s the type of stuff I want to hear from my political leaders, and leaders around the world.
Whatever happened to waging “implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness”, huh?
If you want to know what it’s like for a working adult male to try and live on or just above the minimum wage in America, click this link. Oh, and by the way? McDonalds made over $5.5 billion last year.