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Jerome Christenson: The $600 question

Jerome Christenson: The $600 question

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Jerome Christenson

Jerome Christenson

It’s been a while since I last worked for minimum wage.

That would have been back in the early ’70s. I was a college student, slinging pizza to cover rent, tuition, books, car insurance and more beer than it was probably wise to drink. All in all life was comfortable, if rather spartan, and when I finally finished college, wed, and took up adulthood in relative earnest I was debt free.

Couldn’t do that today.

Two bucks an hour just isn’t what it once was. Neither is seven and a quarter, for that matter.

As of late, there’s been a bit of yakkity-yak among the jabbering classes about boosting the pittance paid to the contemporary hewers of wood and drawers of water. There’s nothing like the threat of economic collapse to get the powers-that-be to looking at what they might need to do to keep from becoming the powers-that-used-to-be.

Senator Bernie stepped into the ring, took the mittens off and demanded the minimum wage be boosted to $15 an hour –a proposal that leaves a sizable number of well-heeled folks aghast, insisting that making so many poor people less poor would shake the foundations of the republic.

Still, last year when COVID 19 was shutting down the country and threatening to feed the stock market to the bears, the Republican U.S. Senate — a millionaire boys club if there ever was one — took a look at the possibility that the economy would be in the toilet just in time for voters to go to the polls and pull the flush lever on their careers and concluded that putting some money in the pockets of folks out of work might make them less inclined to vote their sugar daddies out of office. They politicos hit upon six hundred bucks a week — with no real experience of how much life six hundred bucks a week would pay for out in the world ordinary folks live in.

To the well off, it must have seemed to be the least that folks could hope to live on.

Perhaps coincidentally, that $600 a week works out to be $15 an hour.

It seemed to do the trick, though a number of office holders did worry that a good number of folks might balk at going back to their jobs because going back to work would mean taking a substantial pay cut.

When unemployment pays better than a full-time job, something’s wrong. Franklin Roosevelt summed it up when he proposed a federal minimum wage way back during the last Great Depression. The wage, he said, would provide a living at “more than a bare subsistence level, I mean the wages of decent living.”

And to folks who claimed it was too costly to assure that working a full-time job would provide a place to live, food to eat, heat when it’s cold, and a doctor when you’re sick, Roosevelt was blunt … “No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”

Since Og moved out of his cave it’s been a truism — the harder the work, the lower the pay. The folks who work our fields, stock our shelves, fix our streets, clean our toilets, care for our old people … the folks who do the grunt work in this world are generally paid a pittance to keep life convenient and comfortable for the rest of us.

It’s not that there’s not enough to go around. We’re wallowing in stuff; too many of us overfed, undertaxed and out of touch with the gritty reality of life for folks two neighborhoods over and down the street.

Jesus said the poor would always be with us. It may be blasphemy, but I think he’s waiting for us to prove him wrong. We can — if only we choose to.


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