Conservatives like to beat the drum of American Exceptionalism. Then they do everything to make that term a big joke. Laura Clawson of Daily Kos examines national rates for the minimum wage. American is nowhere close to being exceptional. Australia, France, Canada, and several other developed countries have a higher minimum wage. Clawson points out that the U.S. has to use social programs to supplement wages of low paid workers. In essence, this means that those who make more than the minimum wage are subsidizing companies that pay the minimum wage. The next time you hear someone complain about government programs, please remind that person that many of the people getting those benefits work. The real winner is the corporations that pay low wages. The real problem is corporate welfare.
Normally on Sundays I write about issues outside of the world of careers and work. But today I read a letter in the Chicago Sun-Times that made my blood boil. John Babush of Big Rock, Illinois defended the disparity in pay between CEOs and front line workers, citing the example that McDonald’s CEO makes in an hour what it takes a minimum wage worker three and a half months to make.
Babush’s first point is stunning – stunningly absurd: “How many hours do you think he or she [a minimum wage worker] would last in that job [CEO]?” No one who supports a living wage suggests that front line workers should be paid what their mangers are making much less what a CEO of a Fortune 50 company should be compensated. The question is one of degree. In the 1970s, CEOs in the U.S. earned 30-50:1 to the average employee salary. Now that ratio is often 250-300:1. Mr. Babush says we are asking the wrong question. He needs to go back to school for a little training in logic.
Worse still, Babush writes: “Anybody working a minimum wage job, should they want more income, ought to do whatever necessary to increase their value to their employer. If that doesn’t work, do whatever is necessary to makes oneself a potentially valuable asset to another employer. Keep it up and one day that minimum-wage worker might end up a CEO.” Is it possible to follow this map to success? Sure – for the very lucky few. Most successful people in the U.S. today had parents who were also successful. Fewer and fewer children born into poverty have options to rise from the class into which they were born.
“Do whatever is necessary”? Nice advice. It fits well in the myth of American Exceptionalism which conservatives like to push as a rationalization for the wealth distribution they claim to hate. Since the 1980s, middle class and working class people have seen their earnings fall, especially for those without a college degree. In the same period, the most wealth Americans have seen their incomes go up and up. Babush’s model of working hard sounds great, but is it possible in an economy where most of the new jobs pay $15 or less? Is it possible in a culture where greed drives the richest Americans to find new ways to avoid paying taxes that fund what we share in common as a society? Is it possible in a country where politicians of both parties, following neoliberal economic policies, ignore the needs of the middle class, working class, and the poor.
John Babush’s ideas have the strength of simplicity: Work hard and you will succeed. Push that balloon just a little bit, and it bursts. At first, I didn’t know why the Sun-Times published this letters, but the more I think about it, I’m glad it did. This letter gives us a chance to think about so many hard working people – now two generations since Ronald Reagan was president – have worked so hard and “done whatever it takes” to go nowhere or just tread water. We need to take a hard look at the American Dream. Is there still “equal opportunity”?
Today’s Chicago Sun-Times featured a depressing article about the growth of low wage workers in Chicago from 2001-2011. Overall, the percentage of low wage workers grew from 23.8% to 31.2%. Workers with college or higher grew from 9.7% to 16.2%.
These numbers signify a much bigger problem: Workers are getting poorer and poorer, especially those paid by the hour. As I wrote a few days ago, politicians can make noise about “good jobs.” However, as long as the trend of lower wages continues, nothing good will happen in the economy. The working poor have no money to buy. The frightened middle save in fear of job loss or a health crisis. They don’t want to join the working poor.
I’m sick of hearing about American exceptionalism. 15% of Americans live in poverty. Millions of others work multiple low wage jobs to live just above the poverty line. Why should we be proud of this situation?
According to an article by Travis Waldron of Think Progress, 25% of the hourly workers in the U.S. have to make do with wages that are less than $10 per hour. Waldron documents that this kind of job is increasing. Many of these workers are employed by very profitable corporations.
Clients always ask me about unemployment, which I admit is a problem. However, wage stagnation and decline is a much bigger problem. Today I met a client who works in healthcare as a medical assistant. He has three certifications. A year ago he was working a 40 hour week and only making $14 an hour (about $28,000 a year, not much in Chicago). Last week he learned that his company had fallen on hard times, his hours have been cut to 28 a week and his pay cut to $12 an hour. Hourly employees have been given no indication that the company’s owners or managers have made a similar sacrifice. Is this the America that some call exceptional? I’d call it embarrassing.
[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that explores life beyond the workplace.]
Exceptionable Men & Women
On Sunday, April 22, I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Nikkei WWII Veterans Tribute, which honored Japanese American war veterans from the Midwest who could not attend a similar ceremony in Washington D.C. We’ve come to think of men and women from this period as the “Greatest Generation.” They survived the Depression, fought the war, and built middle class America during the 1950s. For Japanese Americans, the story has an extra element: internment.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced Japanese American citizens living on the West coast to live in prison camps. The popular fear of the time, similar to what we saw directed at Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11, was that these American citizens would give aid and comfort to the enemy. Families and individuals were forced to leave their homes and property behind.
In 1943, the U.S. Army began recruiting Japanese American males for combat service in Europe. The 442 Regimental Command Team, a segregated group of Japanese American soldiers, fought some of the war’s bloodiest battles. It suffered a 300% casualty rate, and it earned 21 Medals of Honor. In the Pacific theater, Japanese American men and women served in the Military Intelligence Service, working as translators and often seeing action in front line combat. They also played an important role in the post-war reconstruction of Japanese society.
43 veterans attended the ceremony and received gifts in honor of their service. More importantly, their story was told again, which reminds us that American history is complex and not always a simple story of men raising flags. President Truman captured the heroism of the 442 and all the Japanese American veterans when he said: “You fought the enemy abroad and prejudice at home and you won.” In his proclamation, honoring Japanese American veterans, President Obama wrote: “They bore the extraordinary burden of defending our way of life abroad while many of their families were interned back home. Despite the sting of discrimination, their dedication to their country stayed true, and we are forever indebted to these veterans and their loved ones.”
Too often, our country’s history is simplified, given a plastic surgery that covers over any kind of wrong. Some even praise this version of history as American Exceptionalism. There is nothing exceptional about the wrongs done to Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian American, women, or gays/lesbians. There is nothing exceptional about the war on workers and unions that started in the late 19th century and is alive and well today. What is exceptional is that Americans from all backgrounds have fought and died abroad and at home to protect the country’s best values: inclusion, opportunity, and fairness. The story of the Nikkei Veterans is an important chapter in that story. They helped make America a great nation.