Last week was rough for progressives, to put it mildly. Some reactionary, frightening candidates were able to win competitive races and take over the Senate. Key governorships were lost. Of course, this is all cyclical to a degree, as Jon Stewart pointed out by pulling up some 2-year-old footage about the “bloodbath” endured by Republicans. There are many conversations to be had about what our side could have done better in various races. In the meantime, people will face real consequences, whether they’re young immigrants who are waiting for their chance to become citizens or low-income people who desperately need the Medicaid expansion that Republican governors refuse to implement. It can be incredibly disheartening to people who poured time and money into this year’s elections, and made their voices heard at the ballot box. Some people want to throw their hands up at a process that seems to have been coopted by the Koch brothers and their friends. Amidst the deluge of bad news, we can’t lose sight of the real, meaningful impact we still managed to have this election.
It’s midterm election season, which means an onslaught of frantic emails and late night TV jokes about how no one cares about the midterm elections. Without a presidential race at the top of the ticket (though frighteningly we’re already having the 2016 conversation), a lot of people are content to let this one pass them by. As with most elections, there’s a lot at stake, and the results will directly impact our lives. I could go on about control of the Senate, extremely close gubernatorial races and state legislatures that have passed everything from Stand Your Ground to draconian voter ID laws. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on some of the issues on the ballot around the country, and opportunities we have to beat back offensive laws or proactively be more bold than our governments are willing to be on their own.
Through high school and college I waited tables at a handful of places, mostly chain restaurants in areas where there weren’t many other sit-down restaurant options. While I was lucky enough to be a student only working for spending money, that wasn’t the majority of the people I worked with. Most were women for whom waitressing was their main source of income. Or women like my mom, a single mother recently graduated after returning to college and supplementing her income to support the family, who waited tables at the same restaurant as me at the same time (yes, when you’re a teenager you find it annoying to have your mom on your case about cleaning at home and at work).
Opponents of minimum wage increases portray this underpaid workforce as plucky kids earning some pocket money and working their way up the chain. It wasn’t true when I was waiting tables, and it’s not true now. And making a living on the minimum wage is even more precarious when you work for tips. It’s mind-boggling that more than a decade after I stopped waiting tables, most servers are still making the same $2.13 per hour:
“When you earn a wage of $2 or $5, you don’t actually earn a wage at all. Your wage is so low it goes entirely to taxes and you get a pay stub that says ‘This is not a paycheck’. It says ‘$0’. And you live off of your tips,” explains Jayaraman. Restaurant workers are also required by law to claim their tips as income. The tax on their combined income – hourly wage plus tips – is considerably more than what they would pay on their hourly pay.
Relying mostly on tips for one’s income is not just an issue of income instability, but also that of job insecurity that comes with having a seasonal job. “When you live off of tips, your rent and your bills don’t go up and down, but your income does. It varies day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year,” says Jayaraman. “You don’t actually have an income. In fact, you are interviewing for your job every time a new customer sits down.”
Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United points out that 70% of tipped workers are women, and work at place like Applebee’s, The Olive Garden and Red Lobster. I did a brief stint at an Applebee’s in college, and in addition to a stifling amount of corporate lessons and paperwork, we were given a small number of tables to tend to so their customers would get good service–but we missed out on a high enough volume to make good money. I had the luxury of leaving if it was slow or passing off a table if I wanted to leave and hang out with friends, but a lot of the people I worked with took every customer they could get to supplement the meager hourly wage.
ROC United has a petition you can sign here to pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum wage for all workers, including tipped servers.
As the outrage at the income gap grows and more states and cities are taking action, both parties recognize this as a key election year issue. I recently heard a Democratic campaign staffer talk about the party’s eagerness to see minimum wage increases on the ballot in key states, knowing that will drive up turnout for their candidates (whether those candidates will do much to ultimately address the income gap is another question). It’s something congressional Democrats will jump on rhetorically, though the only real hope for change in the short-term is at the state and local level.
Republicans see the writing on the wall and are trying to jump in on the debate, but with a proposal that is out of step with national trends: promoting marriage.
In his speech on poverty last week, Marco Rubio held up marriage as the primary cure for that which afflicts the poor. “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%,” said Rubio. “But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage.” To be sure, Rubio is not married to marriage as the greatest tool of upward mobility – later in the speech, he asserted, “We have the single greatest engine of upward mobility in human history at our disposal: the American free enterprise system.” (If you have a problem with there being two greatest tools in human history for lifting people out of poverty, you’re probably not a Rubio voter in the first place.)
It’s sad that the US government is so invested in promoting the institution of marriage that people are often dependent on it for access to essential services like health care. Ideally our society would take care of people regardless of their relationship status, especially now that marriage is on the decline, and many people that would have been married years ago are choosing cohabitation. It’s one thing to debate the idea of incentivizing marriage, but some conservative proposals would even punish reluctance to enter into it:
Rubio at least gestures in the direction of a pro-marriage policy by proposing to change the Earned Income Tax Credit. The credit subsidized low-income workers of modest means; Rubio would make it more generous for low-income married couples, and more stingy for single parents. It’s questionable whether Rubio’s policy would actually do much to encourage marriage, and it’s certain it would have enormously noxious side effects, by impoverishing single parents and their children.
Rubio’s proposal is at least specific. Others are merely paeans to the value of marriage without any real solutions for inequality.
It’s useful that we find ourselves in a time when commitment to addressing income inequality is seen as an electoral asset, and activists can exploit that dynamic. But we have to push for action from both parties, and hold them to moving beyond rhetoric to implementation of real policies that will help all struggling Americans regardless of their marital status.