A Bold New Idea to Boost Wages

Robert Reich

Robert Reich Former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Professor at Berkeley

The challenges are well known: Working Americans are struggling to keep up with the increasing cost of living. Unemployment is low, but wages of most Americans have remained flat. More than three-quarters of Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck. Most can’t afford a $500 emergency.

There’s a simple and bold solution that would cost about as much as the Trump tax cut. But instead of helping corporations and the rich, it would help millions of working and middle-class Americans by putting money directly in their pockets.

I’m talking about expanding something called the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC. And although it’s been around for decades, it can be the basis of a revolutionary change in the lives of millions of people. 

As it now stands, the EITC gives thousands of dollars to the working poor, with the amount of money they receive gradually decreasing as their earnings rise until they reach a cap, which is now a little over $50,000.

It works so well because it directly boosts the incomes of people who need it the most. Cash gives people freedom and dignity— the power to decide, for example, whether to have their car repaired or buy new shoes for their kids or save for a rainy day. 

When working people have money to spend, they spend most of it in the communities they live in. This, in turn, causes businesses to hire more people to meet the demand. It’s a virtuous cycle that lessens poverty, makes the tax code fairer, and boosts the overall economy.

A bold new idea would be to expand this successful program in 4 simple ways:

First: Raise the maximum amount that very poor Americans receive from the Earned Income Tax Credit by several thousand dollars. This would dramatically reduce poverty in all families with someone who works full time. 

Right now, a job at a $15 minimum wage plus Medicaid and food stamps still doesn’t meet basic needs in much of America. Raising the Earned Income Tax Credit would ensure that every family with a full-time worker is out of poverty.

Second: Extend the Earned Income Tax Credit into the middle class, so even families earning the median family income – which was just about $76,000 in 2017 – will benefit. This would be a huge help to working-class families, many of whom are now one paycheck away from poverty.

Third: Expand the benefits of the Earned Income Tax Credit to two groups of Americans who are working hard, but not necessarily collecting paychecks: people (most of whom are women) who are caring for a child or for a senior in their family, and low-income students.

Fourth: Let people receive this money each month rather than in a lump-sum once a year at tax time, so it helps with monthly expenses – rent, food, education – or can be saved to build a financial cushion.

Presto. We create a kind of cost-of-living refund to lift the incomes of a third of Americans, the people who need it most, and we also include the working class and lower middle class. 

At the same time, we begin to rewrite the tax code in favor of ordinary Americans, instead of large corporations and the wealthy. 

Eighty-three percent of the benefits of the Trump tax cuts will go to the top 1 percent of Americans by 2027. Expanding and modernizing the Earned Income Tax Credit can help put things back in balance.

It’s simple. It’s fair. It’s necessary. It’s big and bold. Enlarge and expand the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

***

Reposted from Robert Reich

Robert Reich served as the nation’s 22nd Secretary of Labor and now is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, is now in bookstores. His earlier book, “Supercapitalism,” is out in paperback. For copies of his articles, books, and public radio commentaries, go to www.RobertReich.org.

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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