A Basic Right: Living-Wage Jobs

Break out the champagne on Wall Street! A new report is out called "Labor Market Left Behind," co-authored by Economic Policy Institute senior economist Jared Bernstein and the Institute's president, Lawrence Mishel. "Unemployment has continued to trend upward, from 5.6 percent in November 2001 to 6.2 percent in July 2003....(There are) three unemployed people for every job opening.... Unemployment has risen 0.6 percentage points overall and 1.3 points among African Americans," according to Bernstein and Mishel.

And get this: "Employment opportunities have declined more for college graduates than for high school dropouts. Underemployed workers -- those working fewer hours than they want to or in a job for which they are overqualified -- reached double digits (10.2 percent) in July 2003." And that doesn't include the 2 million workers who've stopped looking for work in this abysmal job market.

Fortunately for the Bush administration, the question, "Who would Jesus bomb?" is crowding other important inquiries, such as, "How do we end poverty as we know it?"

Loyola University's distinguished professor of law, William P. Quigley, addresses the latter question in his new book "Ending Poverty As We Know It" (Temple University Press). You should check it out, even if you're too busy trying to make ends meet.

The book is full of facts kept safely away from the consciousness of the voting public. For starters, Quigley reports: "There are approximately 30 million people in the United States who are working full-time but earning poverty-level wages."

Now, add to that the 15 million or so who are either out of work or are working part-time but would love to be working full-time, and we've got one big, good-news story for the investors who, like a teenager reading Penthouse, get their jollies from reports of surplus labor.

"Historically, the first response to poverty has been to advise the poor to work. But if the poor are already working or cannot find a job, what's the next response? Usually, silence. And because of that silence, more and more people join the ranks of the poor," Quigley writes.

Of course, we have this persistent belief that work is the way out of poverty and into affluence. "While I applaud the sincerity of these beliefs," Quigley observes, "as a longtime student of poverty issues I know that they simply are not true."

Then he suggests we ask ourselves the following questions: Do you think that every person who wants to work should have the opportunity to do so? And, do you think that every person who works full-time should earn enough to be self-supporting?

In speaking in various venues across the country, Quigley gets an overwhelming "yes" to those questions.

The problem, as was so pointedly stated by University of Washington professor Diana Pearce, "this is not about people doing a bad job of budgeting or making bad choices. They simply don't have enough to make it."

Quigley's solution? A Constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to a job with a living wage. You'll have to read the book to understand his proposal and how it would work. The idea is not a new one. Martin Luther King made similar proposals back in the 60s.

Speaking of which, since 9/11, we've had two Martin Luther King Days and two "celebrations" of his Aug. 28, 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. Yet, somehow we manage to forget that King was assassinated while working in solidarity with unionized Memphis sanitation workers seeking a living wage.

As we follow policies that lead us further down the path of escalating violence and destruction, we take time out to get all warm and fuzzy, holding hands singing kumbaya, congratulating ourselves about integration or bad-mouthing the goals of affirmative action while citing King's famous "content of our character" line, which our neoconservative brothers and sisters have shamelessly wrenched out of context.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist.

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