August 13, 2017

Panel explores ways to offset growing income inequality in United States

With income inequality in the United States growing, a panel of advocates discussed Friday at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York the best ways to stem this trend and lessen the gap for millions of Americans between wages and living costs.

The session was titled “The Wage Debate: Can the Minimum Wage, A Living Wage Or Universal Basic Income Reduce Income Inequality?” But it was more a conversation on ways to tackle income equality than a debate per se.

Participants agreed on that the current economic environment was failing millions of Americans, with income inequality said to be at its highest since 1928 and the percentage of middle class shrinking since 2000.

The other agreement was that the minimum wage per se was less than the minimum Americans needed to subsist.

“The minimum wage does not allow people to provide something as basic as housing,” said moderator Antonia K. Fasanelli, executive director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore.

Concepts to help shrink income inequality were advanced. Tweedy Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, advocated the “fight for 15,” signifying the push nationally to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 and has not been raised since 2009 although some states and cities have set the pay threshold higher.

Gebreselassie noted many major U.S. cities have set out on a path for a $15 minimum wage that could eventually bring a quarter of the workforce under that guideline. “The scale and impact of these increases cannot be overstated,” she said.

Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, offered a slightly different view, suggesting the $15 minimum wage target was too low. “$15 an hour is not a big deal. It’s a big victory but not a big deal,” she said, adding that if the minimum wage of 15 years ago kept pace with inflation it would be $19 today.

She added that about four of 10 people are making less than $15 per hour “and everyone knows you can’t make ends meet” on that income.

Andy Stern, a longtime leader of a public employee union and now senior fellow at the Columbia University Richman Center in New York, advocated the plan of a universal basic income. The concept, which has been bandied about for years, is that a basic income system would replace the current welfare system and offset a portion of the gap between wages and living costs.

Stern suggests, for example, that for starters a person would get a minimum of $1,000 per month in straight income and would make choices on how to use that money.

He argued that a changing economy is going to generate more havoc for millions of Americans and that a more aggressive approach than simply a minimum wage should be pursued.

“People are going to have a miserable experience finding jobs 10 years from now,” he said, adding there is little that can be done through current approaches. Noting that many libertarians who want to shrink government programs have joined with progressives who seek to help the working poor, he called for a radical shift in support for the needy. “There is an enormous amount of wealth, and there is a distribution problem,” he said, in advocating for the universal basic income model.

“The Wage Debate: Can the Minimum Wage, A Living Wage Or Universal Basic Income Reduce Income Inequality?” was sponsored by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.