Two news events this week lauded the value of work.
They could not have been more different.
In a series of marches and rallies in Kansas City on Wednesday, hundreds of low-wage workers boisterously demanded a raise. “Hey, hey, ho, ho,” they chanted. “These poverty wages got to go.”
Fast food servers, home health aides and others told stories about the struggles of living at or near the minimum wage. About the lights getting cut off, doubling up with other families, always scrambling to keep up and never being able to look ahead.
The robust demonstrations in Kansas City were echoed to one degree or another in more than 200 other American cities on Wednesday. Buoyed by unions, faith groups and, increasingly, middle-income Americans, people decried an economic structure that forces workers at the bottom to seek taxpayer-subsided benefits like food stamps, while the corporations that hire them reap record profits.
A much quieter ceremony took place Thursday morning in Topeka. Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law a controversial package that makes it harder for impoverished Kansans to receive federal welfare money.
The new law is aimed at getting people to work, the governor said. “People want to be self-reliant.”
Absolutely, they do. You’d better believe those hundreds of low-wage workers marching through Kansas City on Wednesday would love to never have to fill out another food stamp application, or apply for welfare to take care of their kids.
Politicians in Kansas and Missouri, where the legislature just sent its own bill limiting access to welfare to Gov. Jay Nixon, should be championing the crusade for higher pay and better conditions.
But most aren’t. They are beholden to powerful business groups that are perfectly content with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in Kansas, and think Missouri’s hourly minimum wage of $7.65 is too high.
The new Kansas welfare law has been extensively pilloried, mostly for its long list of purchases and activities — including trips to movie theaters and swimming pools — that cannot be financed with government subsides. And so Brownback’s signing ceremony had a defiant tone.
“Too often, while well-intentioned, our poverty programs fail the poor,” Brownback said. “They fail them by keeping them in cycles of dependency. This legislation helps break that destructive cycle.”
The Brownback administration boasts that 6,000 persons who sought federal assistance through the state were helped into jobs in 2014. But officials have not been specific about what those jobs are. If they’re at the bottom of the pay scale, then the workers are unlikely to have obtained Brownback’s goal of self-reliance.
According to the Kansas Center for Economic Growth, a research group that opposes further cuts in government services, more than one in four working Kansans need assistance to pay for food, housing, child care and other necessities.
Conservative legislators applaud low-income people who show initiative, who take classes to better themselves or find a second job. But they rarely acknowledge how difficult that is.
Employers increasingly are cutting hours, ordering workers to take shifts just a few hours apart, and scheduling workers with little or no notice. This erratic scheduling, often prescribed by computer software, makes it hard to work out child care arrangements, much less attend a class or take a second job.
State legislatures could help with laws requiring schedules to be posted a week in advance or mandating a reasonable amount of time — say 12 hours — between shifts. But there has been no such discussion in either Kansas or Missouri. And it’s a safe bet any proposal would face a solid wall of opposition.
Any politician who advocates “self-reliance” for the poor should be joining the march for a livable wage and reliable hours. See you at the next rally, Gov. Brownback?