J. McDonald "Don" Williams is a good friend. As a matter of fact, Dallas has no better friend. For years Don led the Trammell Crow Company. Since his "retirement" from Crow, Don has been working to reshape life and opportunity for thousands of low-income citizens residing in our cities grossly underdeveloped and terribly neglected Southern Sector. He founded the Foundation for Community Empowerment as a vehicle to hold and organize his work in that regard.
Don has been more than a champion for the poor. Most importantly, Don listens to people. His faith informs his community engagement and his viewpoints on public policy. Don argues with his life and he stands up for those who are typically shut out and left behind. He is among the strongest advocates for justice in our civic life here in Dallas.
What follows appeared in The Dallas Morning News on Monday, January 8, 2007. I find his words challenging and motivating. Coming from one of the top business minds in Dallas, I find that they give a solid perspective on what a raise in the national minimum wage would mean to all of us.
The underpaid workforce
We count on Americans to care for themselves.
Let's help them meet that expectation.
Confused by the rhetoric swirling around proposals to raise the federal minimum wage? Try this: Take a dollar out of your wallet. Now, imagine that in anyone else's hands, that dollar is worth 100 cents, but in yours it is worth just 67 cents.
Or, imagine that your children or grandchildren can look forward to earning only as many dollars as you earn today, but each of their dollars will be worth 67 cents. Is that your idea of the American dream? Well, for a person who earned the minimum wage in 1968, and whose child or grandchild makes the minimum wage today, that's reality. In current dollars, the 1968 worker earned $7.71 an hour. Today's worker earns $5.15 an hour.
Or consider this: a full-time minimum-wage worker earns $893 a month. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is $777. No wonder a family of three with one full-time minimum-wage worker is $5,378 below the federal poverty line.
That might not be quite so appalling if those at the other end of the spectrum had not prospered so spectacularly in recent years. According to the annual Executive Excess report issued by the Institute for Policy Studies, if the minimum wage had increased since 1990 at the same rate as CEO pay, it would be $22.61 an hour.
How can we look at such numbers and live with ourselves as a nation -- or as a state, a city or individual people of conscience? How can we claim to believe in the American dream, yet ignore the millions of our neighbors who work long and hard only to sink deeper into poverty? How can we ignore the Judeo-Christian mandate to "defend the rights of the poor and needy" by failing to pay a living wage?
Even if Congress does increase the federal minimum to $7.25 an hour over the next two years, it will still be less in real terms than in 1968 and less than enough to boost a family of three above the poverty line. Is that good enough for Texas and Dallas?
Already, 29 states and more than 100 cities guarantee some or all workers wages above the current federal minimum. In November, voters in six states adopted or raised statewide wage floors above the federal level.
Voters there were surely moved by simple fairness and decency. Many also recognized that by allowing employers to underpay workers, we shift the burden of services such as health care onto the taxpaying public. No wonder the cost of programs such as Medicaid is exploding. How can we expect workers to meet the medical needs of themselves and their children when they can barely cover rent and food?
Some argue against boosting the minimum wage on the theory that employers will compensate by reducing the number of people they hire. Quite simply, the data does not bear that out -- as 650 economists, including five Nobel Prize winners, affirmed when they endorsed a raise to $7.25 an hour.
"[T]he weight of the evidence suggests that modest increases in the minimum wage have had very little or no effect on employment," they wrote, quoting the Council of Economic Advisors.
Others argue that the number of workers who actually earn the minimum wage is relatively small and that most of them are not the sole wage earner for their families. But an estimated 5.6 million workers nationwide do earn the minimum wage, about 880,000 of them in Texas. A greater number still make just slightly more than the federal minimum; their wages would likely increase along with it.
In America, we expect people to work hard and care for themselves and their families. Congress and the business community must act to help millions of hard-working Americans meet those expectations.
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