During the lunch break at the March 27 symposium on income inequality, co-sponsored by the City of Seattle and Seattle University, a woman asked me, “So, how will this debate around a $15-per-hour minimum wage affect Real Change vendors?” The sad truth, I relayed to her, is that it won’t. Our vendors are self-employed, and many are never going to be part of the traditional labor market. While last year’s price increase has improved their earning ability, few make anywhere near a living wage.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in increasing the minimum wage, and I’d love to see it at $15. It’s not only morally right, but it’s also good public policy — and yes, I believe it will be good for the economy. The facts are hard to dispute. Real wages have fallen in the past 30 years, and the minimum wage has not even come close to tracking either the consumer price index or productivity gains. The arguments against a higher minimum wage are familiar: We can’t afford it, businesses will shut down or leave, unemployment will rise, etc. This chorus of negativity is a predictable response to progressive social change, but neither the predictive data on the impact of a minimum-wage increase nor the experience of the nine cities that have recently increased minimum wages bears out the “sky is falling” warnings from the right.
Entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, who gave the keynote address at the symposium, and his colleague, Eric Liu, champion an approach they call “middle out” economics. It’s built on the premise that the conservative trickle-down mantra that has dominated public policy since the 1980s only benefits the rich. It’s not entrepreneurs and overpaid CEOs who create jobs, argued Hanauer: It’s the consumers who create demand for their goods and services. Invest in the middle class, and you will benefit the economy as a whole.
Whenever I hear “middle out economics,” I can’t help but wonder “What about those at the bottom?” A middle out strategy bolstered by increased minimum wage will surely lift some boats and may keep others afloat. But what of the drowned and the drowning? For most of them, the people who are unemployable due to age, physical or mental disabilities or criminal background, raising the minimum wage, even to $15, will be inconsequential. I’m concerned that if the unlikely prevails, and we actually get $15, that the left will declare victory and forget about the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
There is a severe shortage of emergency shelter options, even for homeless families with children, and those that exist are underfunded and stretched thin. Treatment options for people with mental health or substance abuse issues have been reduced to a triage system that barely scratches the surface of the need. Income assistance for the very poor has been all but eliminated. Food stamps, too, have been under siege. The most recent federal report states that 60 percent of recipients came from households with no wage earners. Increasing the minimum wage won’t help these people.
After a full day of listening to advocates and policy experts talk about $15 an hour, I headed to a rally Real Change sponsored in Occidental Square. We called it “Stand for Compassion.” It honored the homeless men who were allegedly attacked by drunk Sounders fans two weeks ago near the Fallen Firefighters Memorial. More than 150 people gathered, from Seattle firefighters to homeless activists to concerned citizens. At its conclusion, Northern Cheyenne elder Ray Kingfisher led us in prayer, and as he drummed and sang, we held hands in one large circle to honor those most of society refuses to see. (See page 6.)
Martin Luther King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As we push for policies to benefit the working poor, we must remember that every day, injustices stifle the lives of Seattle’s most vulnerable.