Milwaukee County supervisors, led by David Bowen, have put forth a “living wage” ordinance for county workers and the employees of certain county contractors and developers that would mandate a reasonable living wage of $12.45 an hour for some 8,000 working people in the Milwaukee area.
This modest proposal has been rejected by County Executive Chris Abele on the grounds that the county should not inconvenience “competitiveness or taxpayers.” Nor should any potential contractors or developers who wish to do business with the county be forced to pay their employees a living wage, for such egalitarianism would be the cause of calamitous economic calamity the likes of which Wisconsin has almost never seen. Somehow Dane County and Madison (and many other public entities) have managed to survive their economy-killing living wage increases.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board shares Abele’s lachrymose view of giving the underpaid a raise, pointing as does Abele to the County Comptroller’s “worst-case scenario” by which the living wage would do more harm than good by ending all development as we know it in Milwaukee County, which contains Wisconsin’s largest urban area, a thing hard to duplicate elsewhere and a major attraction for many developers.
But let us not, dear citizens, burden our beleaguered developers. For why should a developer that is given a million dollar subsidy by the county then be expected to share some of that money with his or her employees? It borders dangerously on some sort of progressive populism.
Here’s how the Journal Sentinel editors justify the tough love of paying the poor poorly:
“The ordinance would create an economic island out of a county that is home to some of the poorest people in Wisconsin, and over the long term that won’t be helpful . . . We’re sympathetic, but will the end result be positive in the aggregate if the county loses business? We doubt it.”
It must be comforting to know, if you are a county employee or contracted employee now making at or close to the minimum wage, that the aggregate will be more positive if you just keep on scraping by.
So if most of the rest of the state makes do with wage slavery, Milwaukee County ought not to unduly disturb the status quo by doing anything rash. But, editors, surely some of the poorest people in Wisconsin are the people who need the most immediate income help. And if that means that my fellow county taxpayers, many of whom can afford to pay more taxes, are asked to help out for the good of the county’s “aggregate” economy (the Center on Wisconsin Strategy says paying a living wage could create some $38 million in income investment for the county), they should charitably do so. If we don’t pay a living wage, we will pay more for other public services the desperately poor require. For if there is indeed more dignity in work than welfare, as employed conservatives like to say, we ought then to pay people enough to make a living and raise a family.
The county executive and the JS editorial board are putting a lot of stock in the conclusions of the “nonpartisan” comptroller’s doomsday report while completely ignoring the equally nonpartisan research of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and all the other successful examples of paying a living wage. They also ignore the comments of MATC economics professor Dr. Michael Rosen and the testimony of Wisconsin Jobs Now. Concern about how the living wage would affect the county’s Family Care program is misplaced, for it is the state that funds the program and the state that has cut back on its funding. Why not raise the wage and hold the state accountable for the proper funding rather than let the state’s austerity hold the county hostage?
Abele and the JS editors suggest we all lobby our leaders in Washington, D.C. to approve a raise in the national minimum wage. (Sure. Maybe after the next election.) Or maybe Wisconsin, currently Republican-controlled, will raise the minimum wage. (Right.) Or maybe some angel donor will unload his or her fortune on Milwaukee County.
Or perhaps the county and its leaders should be bold and lead, do something locally to address the growing and shameful income gap that a whole lot of economists now say is holding back the U.S. economy. Bowen and other supervisors are now seeking to gather enough support through compromise to nullify Abele’s presumed veto and rebuff the county’s sympathetic leader and leading journalists.