In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOU) address, he appealed to our nation’s employers to raise wages from the current minimum of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. He has already signed an executive order that requires federal contractors to be paid $10.10 an hour, an only appropriate move since so many workers on federal contracts are living in poverty.
The plight of federal contract workers at the bottom is especially galling, given that CEOs at the top have no limits in what they can be paid. Many earn more than president Obama’s $400,000 salary. They are awarded contracts by coming up with a minimum bid, which too often means paying people the lowest possible wage.
There are many consequences to workers earning so little money that they often work at a level below the poverty line. The federal government through food stamps, subsidized health care, and a number of other well-deserved benefits subsidizes those with families surviving on low wages. They are also stigmatized by receiving government help. Why not pay these folks enough to make it on their own, instead of railing about those who “depend” on the government?
Unfortunate side effect
When women with children earn a minimum wage, they are challenged to take care of their children. If there is not affordable childcare, or a family support system, many of these women are desperate to figure out a way to work and find someone to take care of their children. In Henrico County, Virginia, which is part of the Richmond metropolitan are, 23-year-old Brittney R. Downing admitted her role in the deaths of her two children, aged 3 months and 20 months.
Brittney Downing left her children in a parking lot, inside her vehicle, while she went to work at a Henrico hotel. Both of her children were affected by heat strokes. Her 20 month old son died first, her daughter four days later. She is charged with involuntary manslaughter and can spend as many as 25 years in jail.
Some will say that Brittney Downing should have had better sense than to leave her children in a locked car. I would say that those who value life so much that they rail against a woman’s right to choose ought to consider the consequences of choices, especially when they aren’t supported. Why don’t we have a work/family policy that makes child care assessable and affordable? Given these provisions, or a living wage, Brittney Downing may not have found the need to bring her children to work with her, and to keep them in the car.
Need a break
There have been spates of cases where mothers have left their children “home alone.” Not all of them have been cases similar to Brittney’s, when a woman leaves her children because she has no childcare support system. Some of the cases happen to be women who have walked out to buy a soda or get a stamp. That’s likely to be a woman, cooped up with her children, with not enough support to take a break. Other women have left their children “home alone” while they engaged in social activities. While their actions are foolish, the lack of a support system is still quite evident.
The low wages that many single mothers earn limit opportunities. The children they try to raise are the collateral damage that our Congress is complicit in when they refuse to raise the minimum wage. Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.
Julianne Malveaux is an author, economist, and President Emerita of Bennett College for Women.