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Molly Ivins September 22


AUSTIN, Texas — Amid the mountains of evidence of increasing economic inequality in this country, it might be useful to focus on the solutions rather than the problem.

Here's the bottom line: Low-wage workers in this country — working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year — make $10,700 a year, which is $2,900 below the poverty level for a family of three. On Sept. 15, Sen. Edward Kennedy offered a minimum-wage increase as an amendment to the bankruptcy bill, announcing in a news release: "These Americans are just one paycheck away from bankruptcy. If faced with divorce, an unexpected health crisis or another family emergency, these families often have no option but to declare bankruptcy.

"My Republican friends have their own answer — legislation to make it easier for banks and credit card companies to squeeze these already-struggling families even harder."

Now, I don't think Kennedy is being fair here. The Republicans, acting on behalf of the banks and the credit card companies, are not proposing this as a solution to the problem of increasing bankruptcies in this country. They are proposing it as a solution to the problem that the banks and the credit card companies have with the increasing number of bankruptcies in this country. You see the difference, of course.

Kennedy, attacking the problem from the other end, offers a minimum-wage increase that would get workers up to $6.15 an hour by the end of the century. He is in the happy position of being able to say, "I told you so."

Kennedy wrote and passed the last increase, which took effect in 1996 and 1997, amid the usual cries from the usual suspects — the Business Round Table, Sen. Phil Gramm, the National Restaurant Association and others — that doom and chaos would result. All the hoary arguments were trotted out: Small businesses would be driven to the brink, massive layoffs would result, inflation would spiral out of control, etc., etc.

One can forgive Kennedy his polite, senatorial har-de-har-har about this because, as he points out, "Since the last increase, inflation has gone down. Unemployment has dropped. Jobs have been added, not lost, in low-wage industries. Retail employment has been growing almost one-third faster in the 11 months since the last increase than it did the year before. Five hundred seventeen thousand new retail jobs have been added since the wage increased to $5.15 last September." Etc., etc.

from his side, all of it backed up by government stats and, indeed, by reports from small business itself.

But the Kennedy amendment hasn't the proverbial snowball's chance for political reasons — the pleasing economic good sense of it making no difference at a time when Our Nation's Capital is focused on something else — so let us consider some other solutions that apply here.

There are two new books that help us understand our apparently contradictory pickle: why, in the midst of a booming economy, more and more people are either stuck or falling behind. "The State of Working America," put out by the Economic Policy Institute (authors Jared Bernstein, Lawrence Mishel and John Schmitt), is a relatively brief look at the situation.

A more thorough and technical book is "Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay" by James K. Galbraith. Although it is fit for the general reader, I admit I had to skip a lot of the technical stuff (my, those economists do have a good time). But the Galbraith book has the compensating advantage of addressing the international wage problem as well.

While Washington dithers, the people are already at work on a solution. The living-wage campaign is one of the most under-reported movements in the United States. (Sorry, the media are busy with something else.) Unions, community groups and religious organizations have won living-wage campaigns in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and New York (and busted out in Houston, swamped by a ton of business money).

The premise is simple — you start by targeting city government with a requirement that any firm holding a service contract with the city pay enough (with gradual increases over about three years) to get their workers out of poverty. It's a concept, no? It's a sort of roundabout way of increasing the minimum wage because as city contractors bump up, other local employers are forced to follow. (Same concept as the Davis-Bacon Act, so loathed by the right wing, which obliges government contractors to meet the prevailing wage.)

This remarkable grass-roots campaign is chronicled in "The Living Wage: Building a Fair Economy" by Robert Pollin and Stephanie Luce. It's another fairly technical book (what DO economists do for fun?) and far from a rah-rah account — it's almost tediously dispassionate. But the authors do have enough sense to realize just how important the movement is.

An alert reader called the other day to propose still another partial solution for inequality: a maximum wage, to apply to those obscene takeover deals in which the top execs collect tens of millions in exchange for firing thousands of workers. I like it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at



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