“Sustainable” poverty?

New York City’s Council recently passed a flawed, but important new Living Wage bill. Despite being watered down over the many months it took to negotiate, billionaire NYC Mayor Bloomberg promptly vetoed it.

Like many Living Wage ordinances, this one would also only apply to employers who receive city subsidies, in this case more than $1 million. It would raise pay to $11.50 an hour, or roughly $24,000 per year for those without benefits (vs. the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, or roughly $15,000 annually) , and $10 per hour with benefits. Advocates of the bill even admit that currently this would affect roughly 600 total workers, this in the largest (and perhaps most expensive) city in the US, with a population of over 8 million people.

Apparently, on his weekly radio address, Mayor Bloomberg was reported as saying about the bill:

“Not good for employers. But if you force that you will just drive businesses out of the city. You just cannot force employers to pay a rate that isn’t sustainable in their business.”

Ignoring for the moment the many well researched papers (incl. one from CEPR ) and on the minimal effect of employment in cities adopting similar Living Wage ordinances, and the fact that this bill would affect such a miniscule number of workers among the multitudes similarly asking for dignity, what struck me about Mayor Bloomberg’s comment was his use of the hopelessly meaningless word, “sustainable”.

His argument rests on the notion that society should somehow condone, and by inference support businesses built on exploitation– simply because that was in their business plan.

This is the argument successfully put forth to legislators behind the multi-decade outsourcing of corporate responsibility to America’s labor force and working families: seen in the precipitous decline of real wages, the heartless attack on retiree pensions, the shrinking of benefits and full-time employment, the deterioration of working conditions affecting worker safety, the irresponsible destruction of the environment, and the recent assault on what the United Nations long ago declared a universal human right: the right to collective bargaining.

Businesses are able to convince their paid-for representatives that paying a Living Wage, a pension, health care, providing adequate worker safety and environmental protections are simply beyond the means of today’s competitive business climate. All the while, asking you to look the other way each quarter as they report their obscene profits to their sycophant friends on Wall Street– who promptly reward the same corporate executives with higher stock prices on their ill gotten options.

And the beat goes on.

More money to the executives. More money to keep legislators in office.
And a steeper path to poverty for everyone else.

Meanwhile, municipalities (strike that– the middle class) are asked to pick up the tab of working people living in poverty in their own communities. Food pantries straining to meet massive rises in food insecurity, emergency room’s bruised from the uninsured using the ER as their general practitioner, mounting housing subsidies and neighborhood blight from malicious foreclosures, and environmental apathy and destruction. The very victims of this travesty are asked to pay for what corporations should be paying for out of their profits– and THIS is what should be in their business plans.

How about a new “sustainable” means test for city business permits in the most wealthy of all US cities: an employer requirement that all employees are paid a Living Wage–

or “no license for You”?