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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Do The Math: On Raising Minimum Wage

“Do the math” is a favorite conservative phrase, particularly popular when objecting to spending money for public good. Let me encourage everyone to do the math in regard to the president’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

That sounds like a fortune to those of us who once worked for 35 or 50 cents an hour – but it isn’t. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now. The key to understanding its worth lies not in the hourly wage, but in the annual one. “Annualize it!” should be the motto of those supporting President Obama on this.

At $9 and a 40-hour week, a worker will earn $360 per week. At 52 weeks a year – setting aside the question of vacation – that’s $18,720. This, of course, is gross income, and ignores the reality of take-home pay after deductions. Even after the president’s plan goes into full effect – in 2015 -- who among us thinks this is an adequate annual income?

Worse, many hourly workers don’t get a chance to earn even that much: their employers cut them off at 30-something hours a week to avoid the fulltime status that may require benefits. This should improve as the Affordable Health Care Act is implemented and employers have less incentive to keep their workers at less than full-time status, but even the gross annual income is much less than enough to support a family.

Thus both mom and dad are forced to work fulltime, while critics complain about declining family values. And many of these families, of course, are supported by just one person – usually a woman. Walk through any trailer park or low-rent apartment complex, and you’ll see countless examples of deadbeat dads, of children fathered by men who abandon them.

“Do the math” very often is a stupid prescription for these women: even when they want the dignity of earning their own way, it makes no mathematical sense to do so. The current national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or $290 a week or $15,080 per year. Florida, at $7.79, is somewhat better, because we the voters supported a referendum several years ago – which was not placed on the ballot by our Republican legislature – that ties the minimum wage to inflation. Still, after deducting the cost of transportation, child care, lunches, and appropriate clothing, the fact is that for many, it literally costs too much to work.

And even in two-parent households, men often contribute less than women to the annual income because they work less. Nor is this a new phenomenon. I did the research for my first book, Foreign and Female, in an era when the modern feminist movement was just beginning, and I was amazed to discover how common this pattern was in the “good old days” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

In a chapter that I titled “Supporting Families,” the data forced this unexpected conclusion. One of many case studies was by a male sociologist in 1909 in New York City. Proper sampling techniques had yet to be developed, and he passed by the numerous homes that did not fit into his preconceived mold of “typical.” He interviewed only families that included both parents, with two to four children under age sixteen.

These women would be least likely to be employed because of their young children -- and yet the only ethnic group that received substantially more than half of its income from the father was the long-resident Irish. Thus, even with this arbitrary standard of selecting families where the women and children could least be expected to work, they still accounted for more than half of the “typical” family’s income.

You don’t know this because your ancestors didn’t tell you. The story of how your Uncle Harry strove to success in America didn’t mention that he obtained his education and business start because his sisters worked long hours, scrubbing floors or toiling in a factory. To acknowledge that these females actually were supporting the family, not just “helping out,” would be to portray themselves as not merely respectably poor, but downright indigent.

Moreover, those women and girls routinely worked for half of the wage that was paid to men and boys for the same – or even harder – work. Since that time, women have moved from up from 50% to earning about 80% of what men do. We can see progress more clearly in that among working teenagers, the disparity largely has disappeared – but because of law, not because businesses became more generous to female workers.

A Chicago study confirmed that the pattern of ignoring women’s income continued in 1925 – and I personally experienced it as late as 1968. My husband and I were newlyweds and were moving back to Boston from Washington. We both had been graduate students in Massachusetts, but I had saved money while working in Washington and intended to continue working while he returned to school. We wanted to buy a house rather than pay rent.

The real estate agency, however, refused to count my income – and we got our mortgage on the basis of my husband’s VA benefits and Harvard scholarships. The young, male realtor explained that they didn’t include women’s income, except for nurses and teachers. Presumably women in those occupations were the only ones responsible enough to keep their jobs.

But I got off the straight track by talking about gender discrimination. Going back to the situation of non-salaried workers, I want to point out another important aspect of minimum wages: ultimately, they benefit us all. The 1925 survey cited above was done at the height of the Roaring Twenties, an era that -- like the early 2000s, when Dubya was president – was deemed prosperous until just moments before the huge crash.

Factories were humming with newly invented cars, radios, refrigerators, and more. Republican President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed, “the business of America is business.” Even the corruption of his Republican predecessor, Warren Harding, did not faze many – although his Interior Department secretly allowed Sinclair Oil to pump petroleum from reserves that were supposed to be held for the Navy. And everyone looked the other way while Wall Street sold paper based on nothing.

With white-collar men firmly in charge, blue-collar men lost the gains that they had made under Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, and some labor leaders were deported as “communists.” Farmers, too, were suffering, as banks and the commodities market took more and more of their income. The Ku Klux Klan revived itself not only in the South, but also in the Midwest, destroying the property of blacks and terrorizing many back into a state of near-slavery.

Despite soaring prices, it was no time for workers to ask for an increase in wages. The very concept of a minimum wage still was new, as in 1923, the Supreme Court struck down an attempt by the District of Columbia to set a minimum wage for women working in a children’s hospital. There was, of course, no Social Security, unemployment insurance, or other planning for the elderly and disabled.

The bottom line? Those factories soon encountered what conservative economists called “overproduction” – in other words, they had sold to everyone with the money to buy. With wages low and farm income down, most of the working class could not afford a car or even a radio. The real problem was not overproduction, but instead a limited customer base. Henry Ford – who was so liberal that he sponsored peace missions abroad -- had it right when he said that workers should be able to buy the products they make.

Otherwise, the economy will come crashing down. All Americans are in this boat together, and that is why – even out of self-interest and not from moral obligation – we should support an increase in the minimum wage.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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