August 9, 1995 in Nation/World

Readers Debate Higher Minimum Wage As Cure For Welfare

By The Spokesman-Review

It’s gratifying how many readers would willingly pay 25 cents or even a buck more for a burger, if that would wipe out the need for welfare supplements to the working poor.

“I’ve always thought Big Macs were too cheap anyhow,” declared one caller in response to a recent column on raising minimum pay to a living wage.

The idea is to make it possible for everyone who works for a living to make a living at it.

That doesn’t seem too much to ask, in the view of most readers who took the trouble to express an opinion.

Entirely apart from the issue of social conscience, the concept appeals to many as a means of short circuiting the nation’s wasteful welfare system.

These advocates want to stop the insanity of funneling workers’ tax dollars up, down, and sideways to fellow wage earners through handouts that almost everyone agrees these days do more harm than good.

Retired minister, public servant and fellow writer Howard M. Lehn of Spokane says he has been submitting articles to publishers for years in support of a livable minimum wage. He finally got published in June by Monday Morning, a publication that goes to ministers and leaders of the Presbyterian Church USA.

“Let us go back to pre-1965, just 30 years ago,” he suggests in the article. “A minister for over 20 years, I was associated with people in all walks of life in San Diego and in suburbs of Spokane. I did not know of a person who had a job who could not support a family, though they might be living in a rather poor house and drive a much-used car.

“There were no government programs for employed people at either the state or federal level - and I never heard any clamor for any.

“Everyone who had some sort of job made about $1 an hour. The well-paid worker made about $2 an hour.” Both levels of wage earners “lived comfortably.”

But the late 1960s changed this. “Wages of union workers and any who could control their own pay rose rapidly, doubling and even tripling in just a few years,” Lehn recalled. During that critical period, he worked a few years with the former state Department of Public Assistance.

“I was shocked at the number of fully employed people, many with real skills and responsibilities, who came in to apply, having not received the increase in wages that most of us were enjoying,” Lehn goes on.

“It was years before there was any change in the minimum wage, which more or less sets the standard (still today) for a large number of workers.

“Now low-paid workers have to buy the products and services of those who earn many times what they are earning, and they are just not able to make it.

“To deal with this problem we have food stamps, low-income housing, reverse income taxes, Medicaid, aid with utility bills, and other aids - none of which I had even heard of 30 years ago.

“My experience has given me,” concluded Lehn, “firsthand knowledge of why we have the working poor and why we need to increase the minimum wage. I can’t understand how anyone can in good conscience oppose raising it.”

But Paul Rechnitzer of Sagle, Idaho, questions how that would help with the dole. “Years ago,” he writes, “I tried as a board member of Opportunities Industrialization in Denver to find jobs for minority members. I ran into stiff opposition for two reasons.

“Without exception, minimum wage jobs were considered demeaning. Any job that paid no more than the minimum wage was not worth having.

“Second, the fact that the would-be employee would only be paid a minimum wage was also considered insulting and demeaning. So the type of job and entry level pay worked to keep out people who had some reliance on public assistance.

“The key to getting people off welfare,” he argues, “is to encourage more people to want to work, to do a good job, and to get satisfaction from doing it.”

Tressia Anderson takes a different approach - a maximum wage.

“I have long felt the gap between rich and poor is ever widening,” said the Spokane resident. “We have had a minimum wage since I was a child. I feel it would be equally fitting to have a maximum wage.”

In Washington state, the minimum wage of $4.90 an hour works out to $10,192 a year.

She suggests making the maximum wage “50 times” that, enabling some people to earn up to half a million a year.

“Unfortunately, a higher paid individual often commands more perks,” she points out. “I’d like to see those limited to $100 a day. But,” she admits, “that might be miserly in today’s economy. “It would also be nice if the lowly paid employees could share equally in bonuses which are usually reserved for well-paid CEOs.”

, DataTimes MEMO: Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.

Associate Editor Frank Bartel’s column appears Sunday, Monday and Wednesday.

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