We hear a lot about the “shrinking middle class” in America. The Pew Research Center set out to measure the erosion. It found that, since 2000, “the middle class has shrunk in size” and “fallen backward in income and wealth.”
The percentage of American adults in the Pew study’s middle-income bracket has fallen from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent today.
While there has been no shortage of thoughtful treatises written about why this has happened, they tend to take a macro, big-picture view of things. I think that a few of the issues making the news locally of late help fill in some of the details and point to what we can do differently at the local level to reinvigorate our middle class. One such issue is the minimum wage.
During the 1960s and ’70s, a single minimum-wage job could support a family of three. The same job today isn’t enough to keep a family out of poverty. But no sooner is the idea of raising the minimum wage proposed than hysterical cries of “job killer” pour forth from Republicans who claim that businesses will have to lay workers off in order to afford any increase.
For perspective, keep in mind that no less a defender of captains of industry than Mayor Bloomberg thinks an increase in the minimum wage is overdue. Not only that, he agrees with the idea that the minimum wage should rise with inflation.
But more than a year after Democrats in Albany proposed increasing the state’s minimum wage and linking it to the inflation rate, it’s still at $7.25 an hour. What Albany Republicans are prepared to approve would drag an increase to $9 an hour out to 2016. Among other serious flaws, the plan does not include inflation rate indexing and, disgracefully, excludes tip workers from a base wage increase.
It should come as no surprise that in such a climate the New York State DREAM Act has also been met with irrational and outsized opposition. The state DREAM Act would give undocumented immigrants the opportunity to access Tuition Assistance Program grants and other college aid.
I understand that many of my Senate colleagues represent districts outside the five boroughs, where there is not much sympathy, if any, for the situation of immigrants. But the fact is that New York City is the economic engine of the state, and immigrants have been an essential cog in that engine for more than 100 years
For what would amount to a budget increase of roughly one-hundredth of one percent, we can extend TAP and other forms of aid to every New York student who wants to go to college. And the Fiscal Policy Institute has calculated that bachelor’s degree holders pay an additional $3,900 in state taxes annually, meaning that TAP funding for the undocumented would more than pay for itself within six years.
In economic terms, what the DREAM Act boils down to is a sound investment in our state’s workforce and future that would eventually pay for itself many times over.
Around City Hall, a topic of heated discussion is the issue of paid sick leave. To be clear, paid sick time is a basic, fundamental right of workers the world over, including here in the United States. It’s universally accepted that getting sick shouldn’t cost someone a job.
The difference here is that we discriminate against low-wage workers — one million of them in New York City — by denying them the right to keep their jobs and their wages when they get sick.
As with increasing the minimum wage, the argument against paid sick time is that it will hurt businesses. Yet research shows that businesses that give their workers paid sick days have lower turnover and higher productivity.
An Economic Policy Institute study on the effects of the paid sick days law in San Francisco found that fears the law would hurt job growth never materialized. In fact, after the law went into effect six years ago, employment in San Francisco grew two times faster than in neighboring counties that had no sick leave policy.
In letting hysterics trump reason when it comes to economic issues such as these, we seem determined to shrink our middle class, grow the ranks of the impoverished and widen the gap between the richest and poorest. It’s the only way to explain the minimum wage debacle that’s playing out in Albany and why immigrants who want to go to college, work and pay taxes are treated like social outcasts.
We’re not going to save our middle class, much less grow it, if we keep doing things that prevent people from working their way into it.
José Peralta is New York State Senator for the 13th District in northwestern Queens and a candidate for borough president.