Bertha Cooper

Think About It: The wages of shame

Several years ago, I volunteered my planning skills to help develop a wellness program for the students in the Sequim School District. I worked with a dedicated team led by district nurse Sonja Bittner. We were able to design in detail a program for wellness which was approved by the school board, but sadly for our work — and I believe, the students — it was never implemented.

The three-year project was eye-opening for me in several ways. One important way was it put me in touch with the network of resources required to provide nutrition to students. I was astonished at how many families were unable to provide basic nutrition to their children, at least not without federal programs and community assistance.

The free school lunch program is by far the biggest program, and provides or subsidizes breakfast and lunches during the school year for children in families whose income is up to 185 percent of the poverty threshold.

To put that in perspective in 2021, the poverty threshold or annual income for a family of two parents and two children to be considered living in poverty is up to $26,695. This family can earn up to $49,386 for their children to be eligible for the school lunch program. I don’t know the current percentage of children eligible for the lunch program in our school district but in the recent past, it was at about 50 percent.

Schools with 50.1 to 75 percent of children meeting the poverty threshold are considered mid-high poverty schools.

This same family is also eligible for the Supplemental Nutritional Support Program referred to as SNAP which provides monthly assistance in the form of a card that can only be used to purchase food if their annual income does not exceed $34,068 without earned income or $39,300 with earned income.

Communities also pitch in to feed children. Among them are the Sequim Boys and Girls Club which provides snacks and other meal support and our local food bank which has food available for families.

Framing the problem

What’s right with this picture is that we have a community that’s doing what it can so that children don’t go hungry. We have a couple of national policies and programs that are meant to keep children from going hungry.

What’s wrong, however, with this picture is that we have a system that asks very little from businesses that pay low wages and whose shortfall is subsidized by government subsidies in the form of these few national and state policies and programs.

Shouldn’t we expect businesses to pay a living wage that does not require taxpayer subsidy for survival?

Far too many families have insufficient money from wages to feed their children, or for some, from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the program to supplement incomes for families with low or no income.

Some families are young and getting started in family life. Some families are dependent on a single parent’s wage. Some still have small children too young for school and mom works part-time or not at all because working to pay much or most of earnings to a babysitter makes no sense.

Some are working in low wage jobs. A person who works a 40-hours/week and earns the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour earns $15,080/year which is about $1,600 above the poverty threshold if he/she lives alone. Cold comfort considering that’s living on less than $1,300/month. No comfort if that person is a parent of a child in the home.

States and communities have raised minimum wages resulting in a reported national minimum wage average of $11.80/hour as of May 2019 (the most recent reported average), a somewhat better situation for the single parent. Note, though, it calculates to $24,544 annually which is below the poverty threshold for a family of 4 with one wage-earner.

War on wages

The federal minimum wage is most recently in the spotlight and was in, then out of the $1.9 trillion rescue/stimulus plan. The plan did include a temporary $3000 child earned income credit which directly benefits families in the short run.

Once we see the figures such as those above, we see how ridiculous it is to imagine our minimum wage is close to adequate unless one is a teenager working for smart phone money.

Remember too, I am just reporting on subsidies for food. Among other subsidies, there is an enormous taxpayer subsidy to provide access to health care to low wage earners whose employers do not provide adequate health insurance as a benefit. The subsidy serves two purposes.

One is to sustain an expensive and profitable delivery of health care. The other is to relieve the pressure on businesses to provide health care access to its employees.

I’m not suggesting that access to health care, subsidized or not, is not valuable.

Rather, I am pounding the table and shouting that businesses should do their share by paying a living wage so people can feed their families and provide adequate health insurance as a benefit until businesses finally get on board for a health care plan that doesn’t rely on businesses.

Instead, elected leaders gave businesses a permanent $1.5 trillion tax break in 2017 which promised an increase in both jobs and wages. According to a 2019 report in Forbes, it did not work and further eroded the capacity of the government to subsidize low wages with programs.

America is in a long and continuing battle to deliver the vision of dignity of meaningful and productive work for able-bodied people. Laws against slavery, child labor and unsafe working conditions are examples of chipping away at the exploitation of workers. Unions — that, is labor unions — will gain in strength as soon as working people realize that political affiliation has nowhere near the power of a collective bargaining union.

Big picture thinking is needed; thinking that has at its heart the understanding that people want to earn their way and feed their children and that failure to provide opportunity put them in long food lines and robs them of dignity of purpose.

Bertha Cooper, a featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her career years in health care administration, program development and consultation. Cooper and her husband have lived in Sequim more than 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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