A Living Wage Should Be A Constitutional RightRoundup
tags: economic history, labor, Economic Policy, wages, Living Wage
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.
With Democrats refashioning their legislative approach to their $15 an hour minimum wage commitment, working Americans are once again stuck in the paltry bottom line of $7.25 an hour that currently stands. The meager rate — unchanged since 2009 — ensures that the nation’s number of low income earners will continue to grow, particularly in communities of color.
Studies show that the actual value of the minimum wage has dropped 17 percent since 2009 and 31 percent since 1968. Its purchasing power is the lowest of G7 nations. Fast food workers in the United States can look abroad to see their counterparts earning much more than they do. Meanwhile, in the last forty years the cost of attending a four-year college or university has increased nearly 500 percent. And while many cities, states, and businesses like Costco and Amazon have raised (sometimes reluctantly) hourly wages, the federal government has yet to act.
More than half of Americans support the hike to $15 an hour, but lawmakers should go further. A living wage should be a constitutional right.
Some in the Founding Generation were familiar with one of the key texts of early capitalism, “Wealth of Nations,” written by eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith. Smith ruffled feathers in the power establishment by advocating “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people,” believing that because “servants, laborers, and workmen” were in the majority of society and worked to “feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people,” that they themselves should be well fed, clothed, and lodged. “No society,” he continued, could “be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members is poor and miserable.”
These ideas percolated across the Atlantic to Philadelphia. Though not expressly stipulated in the hallowed document, the spirit of decent income is enshrined in the Constitution. Affording day-to-day life helps promote “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility” outlined in the Preamble. The Ninth Amendment provides the people with liberties not enumerated in the Constitution, which can be financial, and the Fourteenth Amendment forbids depriving citizens from life, liberty and property without due process.
Yet substandard paychecks do just that.
Making wage direction under the purview of Congress has been an uphill battle, historically. President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins tried to pass a minimum wage with the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, but it was struck down two years later by the Supreme Court. FDR and his labor secretary saw success with the revised Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the first minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. But as it has inched upwards over time, the money has not gone far enough.
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