Thursday, February 08, 2007
NH Senators Fight to Perpetuate Poverty
The 110th Congress got off to a busy start, with the new House laying out an ambitious 100 hour agenda of bills they wanted to pass. At the top of the list was increasing the federal minimum wage. The pundits want you to believe that the reason the Democrats won so big in November was because of the war in Iraq. The war was a part of the Republican rout, but domestic issues played an important part, too, especially here in NH. The minimum wage was one of those issues that was important not only in the federal campaigns but in state campaigns as well.
The federal minimum wage has not been increased for ten years. Those of us who aren’t CEO’s or US Senators are aware that during the last decade, the cost of living has increased dramatically. The Carsey Institute recently found that there are at least 4000 minimum wage workers in NH. Some are young folks working at their first jobs, but many are not. According to the National Women’s Law Center, nearly two thirds of all minimum wage workers are women. Three quarters of those women are over the age of 20, and 35 percent of them work full time. It’s an estimated 15 million Americans working for the minimum wage, across the country – the same nation oft-touted as the wealthiest country in the world.
A person working full time at the current minimum wage will earn $10, 3000 a year. That’s below the federal poverty guidelines. According to the 2006 NH Basic Needs and Livable Wage Study, a single person in NH needs to be making $10.42 an hour to get by. A single parent with 2 children needs to be earning $19.50 an hour, and in a two parent family with two children and both parents working, both parents need to be earning $11.69 each. This isn’t living high on the hog, folks. No exotic vacations, no imported champagne. This is what folks need to be able to afford child care, food, health care, clothing, rent, utilities, transportation, and minimal personal expenses. There isn’t any potential for savings in those wages.
The NH Livable Wage study also found that the costs of basic needs are increasing in our state. Child care costs have increased by 88 percent in the last five years. The cost of health insurance has risen 103 percent in the last seven years (more in the north country), rent and utilities have increased by 35 percent in the last six years. The average costs of child care and health insurance have increased faster than the NH median family income. For many working families, health care consumes 23 percent of their budget.
The House passed a stand-alone increase in the federal minimum wage, one that would bump it up from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour over a two year period. This bill ran into trouble in the Senate, however. The GOP minority unveiled their new strategy for working for we the people in the next two years; death by amendment, and threatening filibuster. Yes, the filibuster is back! It was bad two years ago, when the Democratic minority was threatening to use it against appointing Attila the Hun to the federal bench, but now, in the hands of those same Republicans who cried out against it, it’s good again.
The Senate was outraged at increasing the minimum wage. These same Senators who pass a tax cut for the wealthiest one percent without blinking an eye, are horrified at the very thought of increasing the minimum wage to somewhere above the federal poverty line. These same Senators have received a pay increase of $30,000 during the last decade, while the minimum wage stagnated. During the debate on the minimum wage, one of the amendments proposed would eliminate the federal minimum wage altogether! If this passed, the minimum wage would revert to the state mandated minimum. In Kansas, that would be $2.62 an hour. Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana have no minimum wage laws. Many states have no minimum dollar amount specified; just automatically use the federal minimum wage. NH is one of those states. There were 28 Senators who voted for this nasty bit of business – and our very own NH Senators Gregg and Sununu were two of them. Not only do these men want to keep low wage workers earning below federal poverty lines, they’d happily allow states to pay workers even less!
Judd Gregg has consistently been one of the loudest voices against increasing the minimum wage. In 2006 he said, “If you start losing jobs because you raise minimum wage too quickly, too fast that small employers can’t afford it, that’s going to have an effect on people’s opportunity to work.” Hmmm. Given that he also votes for cuts to the same social programs that minimum wage workers are eligible for, one wonders what he expects people to do? Apparently there’s still plenty of room under NH bridges for low wage workers to go live under.
Senator Gregg, on the other hand, won’t be going to live under a bridge any time soon. He is a millionaire many times over. You may recall that he even won the Powerball lottery in 2005, for $830,000. With his salary (increased automatically every year) and assets, he could be earning $1,000 an hour or more. It’s no wonder that he’s so clueless about the lives of low wage workers. He’s never been one and certainly has no empathy for them – after all, he made his money the old fashioned way – via lucky spermatozoa.
The Senate did finally pass a version of the minimum wage increase, one that calls for $8 billion in tax breaks for businesses. Their idea seems to be to cut the funds going into the federal coffers thereby ensuring those minimum wage workers don’t game the system by applying for food stamps. In the wealthiest nation in the world, we wouldn’t want to make sure that everyone has a roof over their head and food in their belly – not when we have countries to invade, wars to start, and weapons to build.
“One thing the Reagan years have accomplished is to take away the sting and shock of seeing homeless people in a land of plenty. The juxtaposition of extreme poverty and extreme wealth no longer seems obscene because it’s so familiar.” The late, great Molly Ivins
Posted by susanthe at 10:30 AM