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A Living Wage When Working, a Poverty-Free Old Age When Retired

04/15/2015 10:25 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2015

Capitalizing on today's date, the Fight for $15 (i.e., 4/15) Campaign is holding rallies all over the country, and fast-food workers nationwide are going on strike in support of a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour and the right to unionize without fear of retaliation.

Social Security Works is proud to stand in solidarity with the Fight for $15 Campaign.
The campaign is a sister to our own campaign to increase another part of every worker's compensation package -- Social Security. Our campaign is fighting to ensure, among many other goals, that no one, after a lifetime of work, will retire into poverty.

We are the wealthiest nation on Earth at the wealthiest moment of our history. We are much wealthier now than we were in the 1950s, when we were just recovering from the Great Depression and World War II. Yet today's minimum wage is worth significantly less in real dollars than it was 60 years ago ($7.25 today vs. $8.49 in 1956)! That doesn't even account for the tremendous rise in our standard of living over the last six decades!

We are an extremely productive nation. The problem is that, over the last 35 years, most workers have not shared in all of the increased wealth that the productivity has generated. Between 1948 and 1979, two thirds of the aggregate income growth went to the bottom 90 percent. One third went to the top 10 percent -- so the richest did gain disproportionately, but at least everyone shared some. In stark contrast, between 1979 and today -- the same period that saw the drastic erosion of the minimum wage -- all of the aggregate income growth has gone to the top 10 percent!

Keep this in mind the next time you hear the country-club set self-righteously proclaim that people need to tighten their belts. That we cannot afford a hike in the minimum wage. That our very modest Social Security benefits, averaging just $1,330 a month for retirees, must be cut.

And keep in mind that, ultimately, the slow but inexorable impoverishment of the bottom 90 percent is not good for anyone. It is morally obscene and not good for the economy and therefore not even good for the top 10 percent over the long term.

It is in the interest of everyone, rich and poor, to see the minimum wage increased to at least $15 an hour. That will help not just minimum-wage workers. It will have a rippling effect, raising everyone's wages. And while we are at it, let's raise another significant part of everyone's compensation package. Let's raise Social Security.

Today's language, pejoratively labeling Social Security an "entitlement," obscures the reality that Social Security is deferred compensation. It is earned, just as current wages are earned. Indeed, not only do workers earn Social Security with every hour of work, but they share in its cost by contributing every pay period.

So keep this in mind, too, the next time you hear elites scolding, in their blame-the-victim manner, that workers are not saving enough for retirement. This is like saying that workers need to save more to supplement their inadequate pay. Under this Alice-in-Wonderland logic, it is workers' faults that their wages are too low; they simply need to save more!

No one who works long and hard in our nation should live in poverty. To prevent that, we need a minimum wage that is a living wage -- a wage that permits all hardworking Americans to live free of poverty. No one who works long and hard in our nation should live in poverty once retired. What is needed for a decent retirement is guaranteed monthly income that permits one to live free of poverty and maintain one's standard of living and dignity until death. What is needed is an expanded Social Security.

Moreover, expanding Social Security increases not just retirement income. By earning Social Security, workers earn generally the most valuable -- and frequently the only -- employment-based life insurance and disability insurance they have. Increasing Social Security's benefits increases all parts of Social Security because all parts are seamlessly intertwined.

As the wealthiest nation on Earth at the wealthiest moment of our history, we can require a substantially higher minimum wage. As the wealthiest nation on Earth at the wealthiest moment of our history, we can afford substantially higher deferred compensation in the form of Social Security. It is a simple matter of values. A simple matter of decency, fairness, and doing what is right.

Nancy Altman, the author of The Battle for Social Security, and Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University, are the founding co-directors of Social Security Works and co-chair the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. The authors both served as staff to the 1982 National Commission on Social Security Reform (the so-called Greenspan Commission). Their new book, Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All (The New Press, 2015), explains why the American public and a growing number of their elected representatives support expanding Social Security.