Columns » Ernest Dumas

Little people don't count

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Who could fail to be touched by the rueful complaints of lawmakers last week that if they couldn’t take home a little wad of tax money for a sidewalk, a swimming pool or a clubhouse they hadn’t done anything in this session for the little people back in their districts. You could just feel their sorrow, but as it happens the legislators have a bill that actually would help tens of thousands of the hardest working and neediest people back home. It would raise the minimum wage a mere dollar an hour, from $5.15 to $6.15, still a poverty wage. An Arkansas nursing home aide toiling at the minimum wage now earns about 65 percent of the federal poverty line for a family of three. HB 2499 is not apt to get far, even in a legislature where three-fourths of the members are Democrats. Little people, working people — those are just figures of speech, useful in debate. They do not count in the reckoning on policy, even with Democrats. Both the federal and Arkansas minimum wage — the state law now covers a few thousand people in small operations exempt from federal protection— have not been raised since 1997. President Bill Clinton’s deft politics with a Republican Congress forced a small two-step increase in the federal wage floor in 1996 that raised it to $5.15. Arkansas followed suit. Even with the occasional increases, the minimum wage has been falling in value for 30 years. The Arkansas minimum wage now is smaller, as a percentage of the average wage, than it was when a Republican governor, Winthrop Rockefeller, forced the first wage law through the legislature in 1968 by shaming the majority Democrats, who were supposed to be the tribunes of the working man. The value of the federal minimum wage is lower relative to the average wage than anytime since the 1950s. Monday, the U.S. Senate defeated both a Democratic proposal leading to a $7.25 floor in two years and a weaker one thrown in by the Republicans as a figleaf to demonstrate that they were not really hostile to working people. Lots of callous Republicans got to record a vote for a minimum wage increase but no business will actually have to pay a higher wage, a near perfect result. The Arkansas bill, introduced last week by a small group of Democrats, would raise the state minimum wage by a dollar this summer. Ordinarily it would cover only a few thousand workers in small companies, but the bill drops the exclusion of employers who are subject to federal wage-and-hour laws. So low-wage workers at big retail companies, manufacturers, nursing homes and chain operations would be covered. Thus while it is a much better bill it attracts bigger opposition. Some 15 states have now pre-empted the federal wage floor. If the legislature actually passes HB 2499, more than 56,000 Arkansas workers will take home another $2,000 a year. For most of them it would be their first pay increase in years. It has been a time when government drastically reduced the taxes of the super rich and their heirs — see the elimination of the Arkansas estate tax and deep cuts in federal taxes on corporate profits, capital gains, dividends, interest, high salaries and vast inheritances — while raising taxes on working families. Monday, the House voted to cut some slack for a big business that doesn’t want to pay taxes on its electricity. Do you think it would do the same for the poor, for whom the sales tax on energy is the cruelest in the state’s arsenal? Let’s face it. We don’t place any value on menial labor and those who do the thankless work of our economy, the work that undergirds executive bonuses, high stock prices and low store prices. Here are the arguments they will raise against HB 2499 and that will carry the day. • They’re just kids working their way through school. The facts: Seventy-two percent of minimum-wage workers are over 20 and most are women. • These low-wage jobs are just way stations on the way to better ones. But a poverty study showed that’s not the case. Most people in the lowest income category are still there a quarter-century later. The U.S. economy no longer provides mobility for low-wage earners. • Raising the minimum wage would only force companies to lay off people. But the mandated wages never seem to have that effect. They are often followed by sharper job growth. Witness the 1996-97 increases. When the wage bill comes up in committee, the 56,000 men and women who are affected and their families will not be represented by a phalanx of lobbyists like those in the employ of one big business that just wants to build mansions on the canyons above the city water supply. Why should they expect consideration? Not one lawmaker will be treated to a porterhouse and a pinot noir at Sonny Williams’ Steak Room on their tab.

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