Friday, July 28, 2006


The minimum wage, estate tax and a couple of girls who matter to me

I'm lucky to teach at my suburban school. Our students who live in the city and are bussed in daily under the voluntary transfer program are quite lucky too. I believe in this program strongly, and I can't wait to visit my city families in their northside homes each summer to let them know how lucky we all are. Not only that, but these visits allow me a glimpse into the lives of some kids who are very important to me, yet lead lives very different from mine.

I went out yesterday to visit two girls who will be in my class this year and their families. In one home, my student lives with both her mother and father, as well as several extended family members in a bustling, seemingly joyful single-family house. I didn't catch what mom does for a living, but dad works as a groundskeeper. At the second home I visited, a subsidized apartment, my girl lives with her sister and single mother, who works at Wal-Mart. I admire both families a lot. They are loving and stable with clean well-kept homes; these two girls are quite fortunate to be where they are. Yet, I know that in both homes, the parents earn little money, and day-to-day living must be a struggle. If my wife and I gross a combined $75,000 per year and often feel like we barely make it, then how must these folks feel?

I thought about these two families today as I heard news of the Republicans' efforts to hold hostage efforts to raise the minimum wage, a raise that's not happened since 1996. Under the proposal our minimum wage would incrementally rise over three years from its current $5.15 to $7.25, frankly still a pitiful wage but an improvement nonetheless. Republicans know that most Americans support this - 83 percent, according to a Pew Research poll earlier this month - although that didn't stop the Republican controlled Senate from voting against it in June. This time, they've chosen to blackmail Democrats, who have kept a vote on the estate tax repeal at bay. Either allow a vote on the estate tax repeal, Republicans say, or we will quash your minimum wage hike.

"It's going to be one hell of a rumpus," said Eric Ueland, chief of staff for Bill Frist's chief of staff.

Republicans have once again taken sides on who they value. The mega-wealthy over the working poor. You remember all the old estate tax repeal arguments ultimately demonstrated as dishonest and even outright lies. The most famous was the sob stories of all those family farmers who lost their spread after the heirs couldn't pay the "death taxes." When pressed by the New York Times, neither the White House nor the American Farm Bureau could come up with one example of any real family affected this way. Indeed, do you think the average American stands to inherit $4 million, the minimum at which an estate is currently taxed? Conservatives knew better, too, but still resorted to dishonesty to make it look like some sort of kitchen table issue. They showed true zeal and willingness to fight tooth and nail to repeal a ta that affects less than 1 percent of all estates every year. Is there a good case to be made for repealing the estate tax? Perhaps, but any logical argument was long ago obscured in the fog and haze of the Right's deceit and mendacity.

And they show equal amounts of it in their arguments against a raised minimum wage. Conservatives have always hated this as it interferes with their overly concrete belief in Adam Smith's guiding hand. We've heard it all before. If the economy is booming, these folks say that raising the minimum wage will put the brakes on everyone's fun. If the economy is in the shitcan, these folks warn that raising the minimum wage will slow down the recovery. It seems there's never a good time to suit conservatives. Don't forget the one about all those lost jobs and suffering small businessmen, an apparent falsehood given that three quarters of small business owners see no adverse consequences to a wage hike, according to a recent Gallup poll. And of course, to hear right-wingers talk, nobody actually earns the minimum wage other than teenagers flipping burgers, an utter lie.

I happened to tune into Oprah today - summers are great when you're a teacher - and she and her guests discussed these ridiculous claims made against raising the minimum wage. Morgan Spurlock of "Supersize Me" fame discussed his experiences earning minimum wage for one month as part of his new TV show, "30 Days." Spurlock and his girlfriend worked a string of jobs, doing the work none of us middle-class Americans wants to do and earning shockingly small paychecks in exchange. Their deprivations over a month are unimaginable to us average folks, and for Spurlock himself, this was merely a monthlong experiment, not a lifelong trap.

The Christian Science Monitor reported recently that 4.8 million Americans earn less than $7.25. Of those individuals, 48 percent were between the ages of 25 and 64 and support the majority of household expenses with their earnings. A full-time worker earning minimum wage at 40 hours per week and no vacation will gross $10,712 per year. Oprah reported today that 20 million Americans earn less than $10 per hour, and many of these folks include EMTs, teachers assistants and healthcare professionals - in essence people we depend on to do important work in our society. A 40-hour-per-week worker earning $10 per hour will gross an annaul pay of $20,800, still not a wage many of us middle-class Americans would find livable.

So as the right-wing think tanks and pundits work overtime to decry the injustice in taxing a $4 million estate and explain why the working poor don't really need extra money, my thoughts return to my two city girls, both age 10 and certainly not responsible for their family's financial situation. Their parents probably worry nonstop about how they will pay for the groceries, clothing, housing and the expenses of keeping everything running and working. I felt guilty yesterday simply handing over the school supply list. It's none of my business how much these families make, but I bet they could use some extra money.

Clearly Republicans have taken a stand, and it's not with my two girls. Do you plan to take one in November?

A little irony on your freedom fries?

I stumbled into the website selling W Ketchup today. You might remember this as a brand launched in 2004 by a group of ideologues wanting to boycott Heinz after false allegations connected the company to the Kerry campaign. The W in W Ketchup stands for Washington, the website claims with a knowing wink.

Anyway, on their site is a tribute to the deified one, Ronald Reagan. The purveyors of this product apparently forgot about his administration's classification of ketchup as a vegetable to save money on school lunches. Am I the only one seeing irony here? Apparently, W Ketchup's webmaster didn't.

Click here to see this worshipful paean to the man who single-handedly ended the Cold War, got the dadblamed government off our backs, and allowed the eagle to soar once again.

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