I watched the John Ford film of Grapes of Wrath last night. I started out just enjoying Henry Fonda's wonderful performance - so easy and real. But I ended up wondering if our nation really learned anything from the Great Depression. What is the great crime in Grapes of Wrath? It's a crime to be poor. It's a crime to need, to ask, to worry. And it would seem that it is still a crime to be poor.
We entered the depression of the 1930s a nation of haves and have nots. Those who had - those in power - scrambled to hang on to their wealth while the have nots scrambled to gather the scraps. And as I look around me today, as I listen to the news, I hear those same echos of those who have grasping for their power while the have nots silently fight to live and make it to the next day.
Last night I woke up thinking about the recent discussion of the increase in the minimum wage and what it would mean to businesses and that it would actually cause jobs to be lost. It sounded like the struggle of the peach pickers holding out for .05 from the bosses because it wasn't possible to live on .0250...that's two and a half cents.
So let's look at this example in our current economy. Let's say I make 20.00 an hour - which is pretty close to what I earn after taxes. So I work for one hour and I have 20.00. And with that 20.00 I can do a number of things. I can go to a movie and have a snack. I can go to my weekly pub quiz - pay the entry fee and have a couple drinks. I can get a haircut. I can buy a book or a cd or a dvd. I can purchase one of my generic prescriptions covered under my health insurance. I can pay my co-pay for my doctor. I can eat a meal at a good restaurant or two at a lesser quality one. I can almost fill my gas tank in my ten year old Nissan Sentra - which I paid for twice...but that's another story. I can almost pay my rent for one day...that comes to about 28.00 a day. But essentially - I can live comfortably in a nice apartment, feed myself and my pet, and provide for my basic needs. The extras - entertainment, travel, little luxuries - I have to save for, plan for. And I try to invest in my retirement - because I know I'll need it - and I worry about it. After all...my mother is 91. I've got a good 40 years left in me and I know I can't work for all that time.
What if I worked for minimum wage? And when I was 18, 19, even 25...I did. In Oregon - minimum wage is 8.40 an hour. If I worked in a restaurant and made tips, my employer would be required to meet minimum wage if my pay with tips didn't match or exceed that. So what can I do with 8.40? I might be able to go to a movie, if it's a second run theater or a matinee. But I certainly couldn't have a snack. I could go to pub quiz and pay my entry fee. But I'll drink water and eat the bar mix. I couldn't get a haircut - not even at a supercuts. I could buy a used book or cd or movie. I couldn't get a prescription, because I probably don't have insurance. I certainly couldn't go to a doctor and there wouldn't be a co-pay. I could get a meal at a fast food restaurant...one meal and not very nutritious. I might be able to get a few gallons of gas for my car...assuming I have a car. If I have to take public transportation...I can buy 4 trips. And I couldn't even think about renting a place as centrally located, clean, nice and comfortable as I have now. There wouldn't be savings or luxuries, investment or retirement. It's quite possible I would even have more than one job. Many lower wage jobs are not full-time. And so I would have multiple work schedules to deal with, transportation to and from these jobs, and time to do laundry, clean house, shop for groceries, even sleep would be precious. And my worries wouldn't be about retirement, but just about making though one more day without a significant hardship.
I know I'm fortunate to have a good job with health care and retirement plans. And yet I live from paycheck to paycheck. I don't live in luxury. I buy my clothes at second hand stores or on sale at Old Navy, Target, K-Mart. My furniture is a motley collection of yard sale finds and lesser department stores. I won't shop at Wal-Mart. I would have to be pretty desperate to violate that personal boycott of mine. I live within my means. And those means are the median income for my city. I would dearly love to have a bed..not just a mattress set on a frame. I long for an HDTV..not a big one. My apartment couldn't accommodate one. I'd rather have a Mac than my Dell laptop. There are things I want...but my needs are met.
During this past year, as my employer discussed budget cuts, I knew that it was a possibility that my hours might be cut from 40 hours to 32 a week. That would have meant not just a reduction in my salary, but an increase in my health care costs, as I would have had to contribute toward my premium. If that had happened - I would have to sell my car, to save on the upkeep, insurance and gas. I would have stopped my contributions to my IRAs and deferred compensation programs. Perhaps I would have had to find a second job...a minimum wage job. Not easy to do in the state that currently has the highest unemployment in the country. I would have cut back on my "luxuries", my internet and cable services, my entertainment and my contact with my beloved daughter, friends and family.
I know how close I am to becoming a statistic. To having to figure out how to survive instead of thrive. And I know many like me. We're not nameless, faceless, uneducated, or immigrant. We're not stupid Okies. (I really bristle at that one. My daddy WAS an Okie.) I'm not A RED...I may be PINK...but not PINKO. I tremble at how easy it is to scapegoat and finger point and blame those who are least able to defend themselves. I see it every day. And I despair....we learned nothing. We still hoard and refuse to share. We fear anyone who looks different, talks different, thinks different than we do. We still deceive and betray for a few dollars or a few cents. I have very little, but I would willing give so that another is able to eat, sleep, shower, live without fear of tomorrow. I pray we are not close to the despair of the decade my parents lived though. Every single day...I pray.