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How Your Tax Dollars Fund Bad, Low-Wage Jobs and Help Fuel Inequality

We all have a responsibility to ensure that our tax dollars do not exacerbate economic disparity.

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“I have never asked for government assistance,” she said. “But today I am asking President Obama on behalf of all Union Station workers to be a good landlord and order federal contractors to pay good wages and benefits.”

"Underwriting Bad Jobs" asserts that the President has the power to sign an executive order requiring all companies that do business with the federal government to pay living wages and raise workplace standards. Throughout the press conference, workers from a variety of sectors that contract with the government implored President Obama to take action.

Four truck drivers from South Carolina traveled to DC for the event, and took a turn at the podium. One driver introduced himself as Tony German and explained that they haul loads for a ship liner that has received $6 billion in federal contracts over the past decade to transport military supplies. The truck drivers, however, have seen little of that wealth. Approaching retirement age with no health insurance, a salary that hasn’t increased from $36,000 in 13 years, and the out-of-pocket costs of tires, fuel and insurance for the truck he drives, German says he feels like a “sharecropper on wheels.”

“My great-grandfather was a slave,” he said. “Back then you could see the chains. Now the chains are invisible for both black and white drivers. Mr. President, help us. Release us from this poverty.”

The Demos report anticipates the concern that raising wages for workers contracted by the government would be a burden on taxpayers. Taub and her co-author Robert Hiltonsmith counter that in cases where living-wage laws and other job standards agreements have been enacted on the municipal or county level, the cost to taxpayers has not risen significantly.

In addition, the productivity gains and lower employee turnover that living-wage laws engender result in widespread economic benefits that outweigh any marginal increase in taxes. More often though, taxes don’t increase at all, because higher wages mean that fewer people resort to other taxpayer-funded programs like food stamps and public health services in order to meet their needs.

Workers with Good Jobs Nation were joined at the press conference by leaders from religious communities, the activist organization Our DC, and congressional representatives.

Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison and Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District of Columbia as a non-voting member of Congress, announced their intention to write a letter to the president, urging him to pass the executive order Good Jobs Nation and Demos are calling for. Ellison also invited workers to testify in a congressional hearing on May 21 that will address the federal government’s role in subsidizing low-wage jobs. Ellison and Norton both pledged to support the work of Good Jobs Nation and its partner organizations over the long-term.

“The real strength of this movement is going to be our sustained, unrelenting demand for justice,” Ellison said. He warned against what he called, “the fourth of July theory of organizing,” in which all the action is concentrated in one event. 

“On the fifth of July, what happens? It’s quiet. We’ve got to have a fourth of July every day until we get justice for low-wage workers.”

 With such dire conditions driving workers’ demands and the commitment of organizers and supporters, we may see fireworks soon. As complicit taxpayers, we all should at least be waving sparklers.

Anna Simonton is a filmmaker, freelance writer, and a spring 2013 intern at the Nation magazine.

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