Barbara Shelley: Working class regularly mistreated
The worker at the drive-through window of the fast-food restaurant was giving a virtuoso performance.
She heartily greeted the occupants of every vehicle. She took their orders patiently and courteously, making suggestions when appropriate.
She pushed the daily promotion. “Have you heard about our special offer? No? Well. …”
Turning her head for a moment, she saw me watching her from inside the restaurant and flashed me a broad grin.
I found myself wishing I was an executive of some sort. I wanted to hop in the car, drive up to the window and offer that woman a job that paid more than a fast-food joint salary. She brought dignity and value to her work.
This is the weekend to acknowledge and honor workers, and at first blush it’s an easy task. Most of us appreciate our child’s bus driver, the clerk at the grocery store who points us to the right aisle when we’re in a hurry and the repairman who arrives on short notice when the air conditioner conks out.
But America’s relationship with workers, especially low-wage earners, is more complicated. We expect and appreciate good service from them, but our political discourse is rife with resentment at having to provide services to make their lives easier.
Newt Gingrich, during his unsuccessful campaign this year to be the Republican nominee for president, called Barack Obama “the food stamp president,” and said Obama “will always prefer a food stamp economy to a paycheck economy and call it fair.” But it’s not an either-or proposition. Four of 10 food stamp recipients live in a household where someone works and many more are actively seeking jobs.
Just listen to the health care debate, and the resistance in many states to expanding the income limits at which an adult can qualify for Medicaid.
This change would greatly help low-wage earners, who are unlikely to receive decent health benefits from their jobs and who certainly can’t afford to purchase insurance.
Bringing them under the Medicaid umbrella makes a world of sense, yet lawmakers in many states don’t want to do it. And it’s not just because they’re worried about the expanded limits being expensive, even though the federal government would pick up most of the costs.
Missouri had this very debate a few years ago, when the state’s hospitals actually offered to pay the state to put more adults on Medicaid. Republican lawmakers derided the state’s working poor as lazy and shiftless. One legislator referred to them as “plunderers.”
But these are the people who take care of our aging parents, or clean our offices after we leave for the day. And let’s face it: Their low wages enable other people to earn more, and to spend less on food and consumer goods. But conservatives diligently stitch a thread of resentment which holds that government is taking “other people’s money” to help low-wage earners get by.
The obvious route around the schism is better wages.
Fortunately, there is more unanimity on this point. A poll this year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that more than two-thirds of Americans favor raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to as much as $10 an hour. In skeptical Missouri, 76 percent of voters supported a 2006 ballot measure to lift the floor.
Businesses protest, of course, and politicians hedge, warning of workforce reductions. They are wrong. Reputable studies show that reasonable minimum wage increases act as a stimulus, as low-income workers put the extra money right back into the economy.
Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, has introduced a bill to raise the floor to $9.80 over three years. Citizens should let elected officials know they support fair wages.
In observance of Labor Day, take a moment to thank those people who do their jobs with dignity and grace, even if they’re not compensated in kind.
They deserve our respect, not just in personal interactions but in public policy as well.
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.