LAKE MACBRIDE— My earliest memory of Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday, is associated with the image printed on this button. At the time, South Africa seemed like a remote corner of the world, and there were other substantial, and more local, social justice issues with which to be involved during and after I attended college at the University of Iowa. I recall President Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, and for me, it typified what was wrong with that administration. I supported the act and congress overrode the president’s veto. Others have said more eloquently what I would, may Nelson Mandela rest in peace, and may his legacy live long.
On Thursday, I had breakfast at Sykora Bakery in Cedar Rapids, interviewed for a low wage job, attended a lecture on the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, visited my congressman’s local office, and met with my insurance agent to attempt to finalize health and dental insurance policies for 2014 during open enrollment. It was a busy day and a mixed bag.
After spending most of the last four and a half years working in low wage jobs, one would think I would have a clearer view of the challenges of low wage workers in Iowa than I do. Having given it some thought overnight, a little clarity appeared.
There is a role for government in low wage work, and it is less about fixing a higher minimum wage, and more about providing part of the social safety net. Government programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP and others matter a lot. The work of the U.S. Department of Labor provides worker protections for low wage workers. What matters more is its help in transitioning from lowly paid work to something better, and breaking out of the low wage environment.
Unions have become mostly irrelevant to low wage workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, 6.6 percent of private sector workers were members of a union. The idea of unionizing minimum wage workers like those at fast food restaurants, is ridiculous because of the high turnover. This is especially true in the current regulatory environment. Like it or not, market conditions will set the pay and benefits of most lowly paid jobs, while unions watch as bystanders. As someone who recently sought and found a number of low wage jobs, if a person works at it, they will seldom have to compromise for minimum wages.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that in making a living, money is one of many components, and not always the most important one. The lower on the socioeconomic scale one falls, the more money helps, but the less it matters as one draws increased support from a social network.
So that’s where thing rest on Friday morning. I need to quit resting and get after it.