The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) points out the unsurprising fact that the minimum wage is worth much less than it previously was worth. Its graph illustrated the value of the minimum wage since 1960, adjusted for inflation and translated into 2009 dollars:
When adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was worth $8.54 per hour in 1968, compared to the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Based on a typical, 2,000-hour work year, the 1968 inflation-adjusted minimum wage would equate to an annual salary of $17,080 per year, versus $14,500 for today’s minimum wage.
In other words, the minimum wage decreasingly resembles a living wage. Historically, the peak of minimum wage value was in the 1960s, a long-gone era many people who are working today don’t even remember, because a lot of them weren’t born yet. The EPI also points out that raising the minimum wage stimulates the economy by giving workers more spending power. You’d think this would be obvious, but apparently many politicians overlook this basic fact.
We previously mentioned the very comprehensive interview that Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless did not long ago. It’s worth mentioning again, because when Wayne Hurlbert of Blog Talk Radio conducts an interview, he skillfully leads his subject to lay out the most important principles, as well as explain things in detail.
Painting first with a broad brush, let’s review some of the big ideas. Changing people from tax-takers to taxpayers is one of them. If the working poor were making a fair, adequate living wage, it would reduce the tax burden, because there would be less need for food stamps and other sorts of government assistance. Even if it can’t happen right this minute, people need to know that there is hope, they need to see that pathway stretching out before them. They need to know opportunity exists, and to be inspired to take advantage of opportunity, rather than subside into hopelessness.
Another basic principle of Richard’s is, solutions that come from the grassroots are faster and more effective than those involving the government. Of course, for something big like the Universal Living Wage, the government has to be behind it. But if homeless veterans in your community need socks, an appeal to the local goodhearted people will get them a lot quicker than a request to an official bureaucracy. And we have to show the way, because the old saying is true — “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.”
The biggest idea of all is that homelessness does not have to exist. This situation we have today does not have to be the situation we have tomorrow. We’re in a mess, but it can be undone and fixed. Richard’s proposal for fixing it is implementing the Universal Living Wage. In the interview, Hurlbert asks how the ULW is different from the minimum wage already in effect, and the answer is, it’s not really that different. What we have now needs to be tweaked and perfected, and if it is done over a 10-year period, the shock for anyone need not be too unbearable.
As a background, Richard talks about when the federal minimum wage was instituted in 1938, to make sure every working American could afford basic shelter, food, and clothing. It was a humane, fair, and much needed measure, but it was based on an assumption that it costs pretty much the same to live anyplace in America, so it was not indexed to anything. Still, it worked acceptably until the mid-1980s, when extreme booms and busts in the economy had really messed things up.
Another thing happened too, that would impact the nation very adversely by increasing not only the number of people experiencing homelessness, but the number of such people who were truly incapable of taking care of themselves. By the ’80s, the whole structure of mental health institutions had become so abusive, it seemed better to integrate the mentally ill into society.
The first part of the plan worked fine, dumping thousands of seriously ill and disoriented people on the streets. The second phase didn’t work so well, and rather than getting “mainstreamed,” the people ended up drowning instead, denizens of the streets, free but so impaired that freedom became “just another word for nothing left to lose,” as Kris Kristofferson phrased it.
In the interview, Richard talks about how the minimum wage always falls behind the poverty line, and how it didn’t increase for a whole decade between 1997 and 2007. We ended up with a situation where one of the largest labor organizations, Service Employees International Union, was training people in how to apply for food stamps. At one point, the University of Texas had 200 staff members on food stamps. And because of the unrealistic minimum wage, the federal government had become a creator of homelessness.
Source: “State of Working America preview: The declining value of minimum wage,” EPI.org, 11/17/10
Source: “Richard Troxell: Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Blog Talk Radio, 12/08/10
Image by EPI, used under its Creative Commons license.
On Christmas weekend, Bob Woodruff of ABC News presented a report on homeless veterans, and cited the statistic that on any given day, 107,000 vets are homeless (including 9,000 from Iraq and Afghanistan). Women vets are homeless at twice the rate of men, proportionate to their total numbers. (Unfortunately, Woodruff repeats the old story of how Vietnam veterans were spat upon by civilians when they returned, an urban myth which Jerry Lembcke wrote an entire book to disprove, but these news guys keep perpetuating it anyway.)
Last time, we talked about the dispute over the exact number of people experiencing homelessness who are also military veterans. We understand that exactness in numbers is desirable for writing reports and apportioning tax dollars. Nobody here is anti-numbers. But it’s vital to remember that debating (or quibbling) over numbers can easily become an end in itself, and it can drain energy from our good intentions. We end up merely quantifying the world rather than changing it. We quoted Mary Cunningham of the Urban Institute, who said,
In general, it’s important to remember that there are far too many homeless who are veterans.
And there it is: Far. Too. Many. Thirty-three percent is too many, 23% is too many, 13% is too many, and 3% is too many.
Following are two messages for the two extreme types of Americans, and anybody else who is reading along can extrapolate themselves in between, wherever it’s appropriate.
Message #1 is for the enthusiastic patriot who fully endorses every military adventure the U.S. has ever involved itself in, who believes in maintaining military superiority and supporting the troops. This person is happy to know that U.S. military spending is more than the entire rest of the world combined.
Here’s the message: You, more than anybody, ought to be out there making sure the government keeps its promises to veterans. If you love seeing the red-white-&-blue flying over landscapes, how can you lose sight of the fact that these are the people who make it happen? Veterans are the ones who went to some miserable place and got wounded in various ways, and watched their friends fall victim to horrible fates. We won’t go into it all here, but the saying “War is hell” came into being for a reason.
So, never mind the yellow ribbons and the bumper stickers. Do something concrete. Support the troops by making sure they get everything they need once they are back in America. And that includes government recognition and acknowledgement of mysterious ailments caused by exposure to defoliants and depleted uranium, and whatever else was in the arsenal that was supposed to defeat the enemy, and defeated our own troops instead by making them sick.
People who are in favor of the military culture should not even need to be reminded that every veteran deserves the very best that the country can do for him or her. Now, the harder sell.
Message #2 is for the peace lovers who mistrust and resent every vestige of militarism. Here’s the message: It is possible to hate war and not hate veterans. Just because they wore a uniform, they do not deserve to be homeless pariahs. Some of them didn’t even go voluntarily. There are still Vietnam-era veterans around, including plenty of draftees.
People enlist for many different reasons. Some are idealists, whose beliefs about creating a good world are just as sincere as your own. Some joined up hoping for job training that would be applicable in civilian life, and weren’t taught anything except an obscure skill useful only to the military. Why blame them? They got screwed twice. No skill usable on the outside, plus they got so messed up, one way or another, that they couldn’t hold a job if somebody had offered them one.
Who knows what recruiters are promising these days, but there was a time when a stint in the military looked quite attractive to an awful lot of people, for a multitude of reasons. It might have been the only way out from an intolerable home situation. If a boy’s father made drill sergeants seem warm and cuddly by comparison, the Army was an acceptable escape. And to parentless kids who age out of group homes or foster care, in many cases the security offered by another institution, even the army, could look pretty good.
Whether or not one personally agrees, it is a fact that many a judge has offered a juvenile delinquent the choice between enlistment and jail. A lot of people ended up in the military that way. Not because they wanted to slaughter foreigners, but because they didn’t want to be locked up or acquire a criminal record. I knew a guy who joined up because his parents raided his college fund to buy his brother an expensive toy. That left the G. I. Bill as his only hope for pursuing higher education. He didn’t want to go kill babies. He wanted to get a degree.
Here’s one for the spiritual descendents of hippies and flower children. Often, the most gentle and tender-hearted of the recruits become the veterans with the most severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They couldn’t successfully be turned into the kind of people who can stomach doing the things that soldiers sometimes do. They came back and went all dysfunctional. They need treatment, and if they can’t get it, they at least need some compassion and a new pair of socks now and then. Anybody who cracked up because he or she didn’t “have what it takes” to enjoy being a professional soldier is a person worth saving.
Moving on to libertarians, the attitude about militarism varies, but one thing is clear: Since World War II, every conflict we’ve been involved in was undertaken without a constitutionally-mandated declaration of war. Still, it isn’t the veterans’ fault. Probably any libertarian would agree that any contract made by a government with a member of its armed services should definitely be lived up to by that government.
Currently, many libertarians are angry because the federal government is profiling Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as potential terrorists. No kidding. Here is Paul Joseph Watson on the subject:
The government seems to be obsessed with targeting disgruntled veterans with pre-crime and other unconstitutional forms of surveillance, demonization and harassment… The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mind Machine Project… is primarily aimed at weeding out ‘troubled veterans’ who may be planning to commit terrorist bombings or political assassinations, by illegally wiretapping their phone calls and Internet communications in order to build psychological profiles.
No matter where you are on the political spectrum or what your feelings are about war and the military, every last American has sufficient reasons to be incensed about the homeless veterans, and ought to be.
Source: “Fighting Abroad, Homeless at Home — ABC News,” ABC News, 12/26/10
Source: “Spitting on the Troops: Old Myth, New Rumors,” VVAW.org
Source: “Veterans commission representative says one in three homeless men is a veteran,” PolitiFact.com, 01/10/11
Source: “Feds Use Pre-Crime To Target Disgruntled Veterans,” MilitantLibertarian.org, 10/01/10
Image by Basterous, used under its Creative Commons license.