Toward the end of a high-minded forum
on the working poor at the state Capitol, Hartford neighborhood
organizer Luz Santana screamed out that she had something to say.
She had had enough. Enough of the crisis
she sees every day on the streets. Enough of the polite, academic,
policy-wonk tone of Wednesday's gathering.
"We can talk about poverty until
we drop dead. But the issue is not going to go away," Santana
said, her tone a cross between stern teacher and bulldog guarding
a gateway. "Tax the rich. Organize our people.
"Everyone is all concerned about
saving their salaries while the people they're serving are struggling
Back to the rich: "They cannot
keep getting richer and richer, and we get poorer and poorer. We
cannot afford it. ...There is no money out there for people to take
care of their loved ones."
Class warfare, certainly it was. But
Santana's outburst - coming amid two mornings of discussions sponsored
by advocacy groups about how and why the state should help struggling
people get ahead - reflected something deeper. It revealed a harsh
truth about the hot debate over social policy reform.
Quite simply, the U.S. economy has
devalued the work performed by people below the middle-income level
by lowering the pay of so many jobs.
The talk and the controversy center
on social policy, but stagnant basic pay, combined with shrinking
health benefits, is responsible for more misery than the failure
of government reforms.
As the left and right argue about how
to spend taxpayer money - notably in the form of the state's $525
million budget surplus - devaluation of work is an elephant lounging
in the room.
The elephant takes several forms. For
millions of families clinging to what used to be called the working
class, ups and downs are no longer tied to a business cycle. Even
in good times - such as the last 2½ years, by standard measures
of the economy - they cannot reasonably expect to get ahead.
Among its footprints: the rising ranks
of Connecticut's 400,000 residents without health coverage; the
frustrations of workers in old-line, non-unionized factories, whose
benefits remain intact, but whose pay has languished; the fruitless
careers of former welfare mothers stuck in low-paying store clerk
The elephant is also clear in the big-picture
numbers: Even amid low unemployment, when many businesses say they
can't find enough good workers, the $551 average weekly pay of non-management
workers is losing ground to inflation.
Not all work is devalued, mind you.
Average CEO pay at the biggest public companies reached $11.8 million
in 2004, up from $1.2 million in 1985, according to United for a
Fair Economy, a Massachusetts group. And just last week, the New
York State comptroller gleefully declared that Wall Street's annual
winter bonuses will reach a record $21.5 billion this year.
In the face of all this, the usual
government remedies - more spending on early childhood care, adult
education, tax credits for low-income workers, publicly financed
or even mandated health coverage, tiny advances in worker-organizing
rights - seem like a spoon in the Sahara, even added together. Still,
the old debate continues.
To a woman (mostly women), advocates
for the working poor say the devaluation does nothing to discourage
them; quite the opposite, in fact, as was clear Wednesday at the
Connecticut Association for Human Services forum.
"When one assumes a posture of
feeling powerless, that absolutely is immobilizing," said the
Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action
in New Haven. "There are too many children at stake."
Too many children.
So what is to be done?
Advocates will work on public-sector
answers with more urgency, and with an ever greater eye toward making
economic logic, not just the old moral arguments. Using economic
language to call for expanded state and federal programs for the
poor is the first step toward a broader understanding that merely
increasing the size of the economy - the main goal of national policy
in recent years - is not enough.
"Today we need an Economic Security
Act for America's hard-working families," said Jacob Hacker,
a Yale political science professor and author of "The Great
Risk Shift: Increasing Burdens on Families."
The free market, whatever that may
be, is not entirely what got us into this mess. It's true that there
is more competition for work from eager folks in China and India,
but the fact is that the U.S. economy is generating ever more wealth
- it's just not trickling down. Somewhere in a generation of rhetoric,
self-styled free-market disciples have used a bully pulpit to extol
the virtues of individual advancement at the expense of community,
and vast categories of work lost value while others zoomed ahead.
That's not entirely supply-and-demand,
unless you believe that a typical CEO would walk off the job if
given, say, a mere $7 million a year for his toils instead of $12
The answer, if there is one, lies somewhere
between the public and private realms, in a societal effort to restore
the inherent value of work, across the board.
Utopian? Maybe. But it's a big elephant
in that room.
Shelley Geballe, president of Connecticut
Voices for Children, which organized Thursday's forum, is hardly
ready to concede that the fight over public spending is less than
Acknowledging the loss of pay as a
driving force, she noted, "We devalue, in many respects, jobs
taking care of people.
"I think it's a piece of
the elephant, for sure," Geballe added. "I'll give you
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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