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 Thursday, January 27, the Austin City Council is preparing to change the No Sit/No Lie Ordinance. This ordinance allows for fines up to $500 for people who (even momentarily) sit or lie down in public places.
On January 1, 2011, House the Homeless, Inc., a grassroots organization fighting for the civil rights of all persons, conducted a health survey. The survey showed that 48% of people experiencing homelessness in Austin suffer disabling conditions that are so severe they are unable to work. Nonetheless, the No Sit/No Lie ordinance makes no exceptions for this group of people and continues to fine and jail them for the act of momentarily sitting and resting.
The City of Austin, at the encouragement of House the Homeless, recognizing that it is presently in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), has set out to bring the ordinance in compliance with the federal law. To gain compliance, the City Council Health and Human Services Committee was preparing to present the full Council language that would exclude anyone with a disability from fines under the ordinance. Great! However, at the last minute, the committee has mistakenly inserted the work “physical” into the statement. Now, the language would basically read, “Anyone with a physical disability would be excluded from fines under the ordinance.” The effect of this one-word change is both dramatic and devastating.
It would mean that anyone with a mental health disability would be subject to fines and forced to enter the criminal justice system to defend themselves. Imagine the least capable among us, people with mental health disabilities, being steered into our court system and clogging it up just because they had a momentary respite. It is well documented in the journals of American Medical Association that people suffering with mental health disorders are routinely treated with very powerful drugs that often cause them to become woozy and dizzy. They often have sunlight and heat sensitivity that depletes them of their energy and causes them to need to temporarily sit and rest.
The promoters of this one-word change attempt to justify their targeting people with mental disabilities by saying that they would be protected under the language “physical disabilities” because they would be having a “physical” reaction to taking medication that causes them to need to temporarily sit down. Really? This sounds more like slippery lawyer talk and a thinly-disguised rationale created to persecute and prosecute people with mental health problems.
Hey — it’s not the Americans with “Physical” Disabilities Act. It’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, period. The basis of which is not physical problems or mental problems but rather medical problems.
In essence, the Austin City Council is also contending that it is absolutely, 100% impossible for a uniformed City of Austin police officer to identify someone who has a mental health concern. Really? Is it really so hard to read the label on a medication vial that says Haldol, Thorazine, Risperadol, or Zyprexa, and also see that someone needs to sit momentarily? Or to look at an individual presenting a letter from a local mental health facility and make a good judgment as to the legitimacy of the situation?
Furthermore, adding insult to injury, as proposed, the police officer will have no latitude whatsoever but to ticket this mentally ill person and send him or her on to the courts. What are the odds of that person showing up? And if that person stands before a judge (unrepresented or at taxpayer expense) showing that judge the same medical vial or document from MHMR, what then? The way the law will be written, the judge will also have no latitude and be forced to fine the individual hundreds of dollars that he or she will have no chance of paying.
What then? A warrant for their arrest for failure to pay the fine? Once arrested, will we then clog our jail system with people experiencing mental illness needing special medication treatment?
What then? Well, House the Homeless and others will have no choice but sue the city for repeated, flagrant violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — all at taxpayer expense!
What’s the alternative? Well, we could simply use the original agreed-upon language that excludes all people with medical disabilities from fines and allow police officers to use their good sense and street smarts to determine who can sit and rest momentarily. And Austin can move to become the “world class” city that it purports to be simply by providing enough benches citywide so that anyone, such as moms toting kids and packages, can just sit for a moment and rest briefly before they move on.
People experiencing homelessness are all over the news, and it’s too easy to feel hopeless and discouraged about the overwhelming amount of need in every corner of the nation. And then a bright ray of meaningful progress shines from the gloomy prospect. Back on My Feet (BOMF) is a super-organized, super-regimented running-based program for helping people reenter the world of the employed and the housed.
It appears to be a mixture of boot camp and Life College, and there are chapters in several U.S. cities. Philosophically, BOMF seems tuned into the ancient wisdom expressed in the saying, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” BOMF is not the place to get a bowl of soup or a blanket, but it just might be the place to get a new life.
Building self-sufficiency is the name of the game, and the building blocks are confidence, strength, and self-esteem. The nonprofit organization’s self-description talks about teamwork and leadership, equality, respect, and discipline. And, of course, it’s not for everybody. BOMF is not the answer for a mentally ill, chronically homeless person who has been on the streets for a decade.
But for someone who is physically healthy and alert enough to benefit from education, it sounds like a dream come true. Participants have to make a commitment and get up early in the morning. BOMF teams are formed at homeless shelters, they go out running three times a week, and many of these energetic, determined achievers enter marathons. They attend financial literacy sessions and finish up their high school education through GED if they don’t already have a diploma. They collect letters of recommendation.
Through the Next Steps program, they connect with various agencies that have the power to move lives forward. The organization is so thorough, it collects donations of suits, shirts, ties, and other necessary business-type clothing for participants to wear to job interviews.
What happens next? In most cases, a degree of success the person might not have been able to imagine. According to the BOMF website,
On average across chapters, BOMF has a success rate of over 50 percent in helping members move their lives forward; this metric is a testament to the efficacy and sustainability of the program.
For more revealing statistics, let’s look at the BOMF blog that tells us that the Philadelphia chapter alone has 59 formerly homeless members who have obtained housing, 73 members who have enrolled in either school or job training programs, and 97 members who have gotten jobs. Via the Baltimore chapter, 48 entered training or re-education, 57 have found jobs, and 21 have found housing.
The website doesn’t go into detail about what the jobs are, or how close they come to providing an actual living wage, but even if some of these folks are still stalled at the level of the working poor, that’s better than being unemployed. In the world of work, it’s always been axiomatic that it’s easier to find a new job if you’re already employed than to find a job if you’re not working. So any job is a move in the right direction. In fact, it may be true now more than ever. I’ve heard that nowadays potential employers only want to take applications from, or schedule interviews with, people who are already working.
The Philadelphia Inquirer says there are about 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in the city. Another source says there are 5,000 homeless children in Philadelphia, and that’s not even counting grownups. Without attempting to determine the exact number, let’s just say, thousands. So, when Philadelphia BOMF and its Next Steps program succeed in getting 59 people housed, a pessimist might be tempted to say, “A mere drop in the bucket. What is that, compared to thousands in need?”
But an optimist would say, “Hot damn!” Because these people who have joined up with BOMF and fulfilled the expectations will probably stay housed. They probably will not wind up in the revolving-door syndrome, in and out of shelters. This will probably stick.
As long as we’re in the area, here’s a magnificent Philadelphia story reported by Christine Olley. The subject of this profile is Nikki Johnson-Huston, who spent part of her childhood in homeless shelters with her alcoholic mother, then later blew a great opportunity by flunking out of college, and still managed to turn her life around. Eventually she earned three degrees and is now an attorney for the city, and a volunteer with Project H.O.M.E.
Source: “The Back on My Feet Program,” BackonMyFeet.org, 11/15/10
Source: “Once homeless, city attorney tells her story to inspire others,” Philly.com, 12/04/10
Image by esbjorn2 (Esbjorn Jorsater), used under its Creative Commons license.