Workers work into poverty

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”

—Pope Francis, November 2013

It’s not just academics and activists who understand that the term “income inequality” conceals the harsh reality of the monumental gap between the rich and the poor. Even the Pope gets it.

No one knows the issue better than your friendly fast-food server, living on minimum wage. That worker may have participated in a one-day strike in early December, in conjunction with other low-wage earners across the country, trying to bring attention to the difficulty they have making ends meet on $15,000 a year.

The Alliance for a Just Society issued its 15th annual Job Gap Study on Dec. 3 highlighting several key data points. The report suggested that a minimum wage of $15 an hour would be more appropriate than the $7.25 hourly rate in most states. (In Nevada, if your employer doesn’t provide health insurance, the minimum wage is $8.25.)

The report, released in Nevada in collaboration with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, found there are seven people looking for every available job with an affordable wage of $15 or more.

The report also documented an increasing share of low-wage jobs being created as the recession has waned. In 2009, 36.55 percent of American jobs paid below $15 an hour; by 2012, the low-wage jobs had increased to 39.45 percent of the economy. In fact, during that same time period, jobs with wages of $15 or more decreased by 4 million, but jobs with wages below $15 an hour increased by 3.6 million.

More jobs, but less money for the worker. Less money to pay rent, buy groceries, and purchase goods, paying sales tax that helps boost the local and state economy.

The report recommends that Congress and state legislatures address the job gap head on, by raising the minimum wage while also repairing and strengthening the safety net of social service programs designed to assist low-income families.

Nevada, naturally, followed the national trends to the extreme. As the state with the distinction of the highest unemployment rate during the recession, workers have suffered accordingly. The report estimates that over half of the Nevada jobs created during the recovery were low-wage jobs, primarily in the hospitality and food service industries, known for creating less than full-time jobs precisely to avoid having to pay benefits or provide job security.

The reaction from the right to the national discussion about low wages has been brutal and lacking in both compassion and understanding. Pundits screeched about teenagers needing those part-time fast food jobs to get started on a career path, forgetting that the majority of minimum wage workers are well past 20 and 28 percent of them support children of their own.

Meanwhile, President Obama has proclaimed his support for a Senate bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Five states and four local governments took action this year to raise the minimum wage above $7.25 an hour. In the town of Seatac, Wash., workers will earn a minimum of $15 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the country.

Raising the minimum wage is not expected to be on Nevada’s 2014 ballot, but there is some good news for our lowest paid workers. Thanks to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s decision to allow the state to expand Medicaid with federal dollars through Obamacare, many of them will now qualify for health care coverage.

Of course, the corporations won’t be picking up that bill. The rest of us will.