- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2006

You know it’s going to be an unusual election year when politicians pretend to care about the working poor.

Indeed, this may go down as a winning week for workers in Maryland.

Take a look at the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, where the first order of business this week was to override gubernatorial vetoes of two bills aimed at bringing much-needed relief to working-class residents.

The sock-it-to-‘em “Wal-Mart bill” requires employers of more than 10,000 workers to spend more on health care benefits for its generally low-wage workers. The minimum-wage bill increases worker pay by a whopping $1 to $6.15 an hour.

But watch Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, one-up his emboldened Democratic opponents as he seeks re-election by donning a Santa Claus suit. I bet he’ll pass out some real-estate tax cut treats during this upcoming election cycle to shake loose more working-class votes from Democrats.

It’s about time workers, many of them single mothers and struggling students, got a tiny break. People want to work, but they need decent jobs with a livable wage and basic benefits for their labor.

Bad for business? What could be better for businesses than people having more money to buy their products and services? While the feds push mightily to make permanent tax cuts that affect the nation’s wealthiest people, Congress continues to reject nominal increases for nominal wage earners. The Fair Minimum Wage Act, a proposal to gradually raise pay to $7 an hour, was shot down in 2004. The federal minimum wage of $5.15 has not risen since 1997.

You’ve got to wonder how many well-heeled politicians could make it on minimum wage, which is about what they should be paid to do the people’s work, not the work of corporations and lobbyists.

A person who works 40 hours a week at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour will earn $10,700 a year, which is $5,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Even so, not all employees are entitled to minimum wage. Teenagers, students and apprentices can be paid as little as $4.25 an hour. People who are allowed to earn tips — waiters and bartenders among them — can be paid just $2.13 an hour.

Maryland follows at least 12 states and the District in raising pay rates to help those who need it most. To their credit, these jurisdictions are not waiting for federal crumbs. So, an estimated 50,000 Maryland workers might be able to buy more beans and rice or cereal and milk to feed their families by this time next month.

And some economists reportedly predict there will be a ripple effect as employers grant raises to those currently earning above minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the cost of gas, utilities, food, clothing, health care and tuition continue to skyrocket. Let’s not even talk about the inability of the working poor to find a decent roof over their heads. Area shelters struggle to house the homeless, who are increasingly working-class families who cannot afford their rent.

Montgomery County’s Housing Opportunities Commission came up with the Family Self-Sufficiency program to help workers find a place to live.

It has been a “lifeline out of poverty” for single mothers, Keyonna Summers of The Washington Times reported last week.

Among those who have benefited from the successful welfare-to-housing program is Rose, a 33-year-old Olney resident and former welfare recipient, who now works as an administrative assistant in an accounting firm and lives in a three-story town house.

But this program, which is a hand up, not a handout, also faces federal cutbacks.

The lack of affordable housing is another critical issue facing working-class families that lawmakers in the District, Maryland and Virginia cannot continue to ignore. What employer wants irritable workers who have spent two hours commuting through gridlocked traffic just to get to work to make wages that do not keep up with the rising cost of living? But few bills are on the legislative agendas in any of the jurisdictions with the types of innovative incentives or private-public partnerships that might interest community-minded builders to develop close-in properties that ordinary, hardworking folks can afford on $6.15 an hour, let alone a dollar less.

None of this legislation for the working poor comes close to dealing with the unseemly employer practice of hiring workers part time in McJobs that circumvent fair wages, benefits and labor practices. Many of these low-paid, low-skill workers are women who fall in the welfare-to-worker sector of society. They need a few more pennies in their paychecks and far more than a pittance from politicians with temporary, self-serving pretenses to survive.

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