Our Disparity Disorder: Life on the Wage Floors

03/04/2015 08:46 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
Doug Levitt

There are minimum legal wages and there are -- or should be -- minimum morally-legal wages.   

Over the last decade -- the most challenging since the Great Depression for people living at the margins -- I have traveled 100,000 Greyhound miles, part of a project to shed light on the struggles of fellow riders.  Along the way, I have crossed paths with countless Americans whose return-on-investment for their hard labor amounts to a ceaseless sense of insecurity for them and their families.   

I think of the vet who, after being in a coma for a month from an IED in Iraq, returned to his native North Carolina and began working at a Taco Bell; the single mom at the Dollar General in Missouri who could barely buy diapers for her two-year-old daughter.  The station workers and security guards, housekeepers and motel clerks; overnight shelf-stockers, like the working mom with aching feet at a Walmart in Inglewood, California, living on the edge of eviction.  

Walmart's recent move to a $9 minimum wage this year, already the law in seven states where they operate, received positive press for the company, despite its long-held spotlight for lacking a living wage as the nation's largest private employer.  The $9 amount falls short of this year's poverty threshold for a family of three by more than $4,000; that's if workers were given what Walmart considers full-time hours (34 a week) for 52 straight weeks, which they so often are not.

Such is life on the wage floors of America, where the recession that never ended has left our working poor receding further by the day from all those able to feel the stock and home-value boom.  While share prices move toward exorbitant, payday lenders remain extortionate. Housing prices go up, so do rents, and so does the breakneck pace of gentrification and dislocation of our urban working poor.

The asset boom combined with wage stagnation have only intensified our nation's disparity disorder, the prime metaphor for which is Walmart and its heirs, the Waltons.  The touted salary gains this year for half a million low-wage Walmart workers costs, in aggregate, less than $1 billion, approximately what each of four Waltons were paid out in dividends from the self-same company this past year.  Even based on my public school math, that is a 1-to-500,000 'raise' differential. 

And that says nothing of the stock's appreciation over this period, which added a further $4.5 billion in holdings for each of the four, on average, according to the 2015 Forbes List of Billionaires.  But then that would align with our economy's misalignment.  The heirs, in fact, have more wealth than the poorest 41.5 percent of American families combined, according to Politifact.  48 million-plus American families next to one, the 0.000001 percent.  That is decidedly whack.  Decidedly unjust.

Dr. King spoke of the intractability of economic injustice.  No one this side of sanity expects anything even approaching parity in a capitalistic society that does so much, so well; the lure of getting ahead financially is one spur of our ingenuity.  But what of the daily ingenuity of sheer survival through hard work and creative home economics -- just to scrape by, ever-further in debt?    

The minimum wage should not merely be the minimum allowed by law, but the minimum it takes to live day-to-day, the minimum allowed by our conscience and common humanity.