Moreover, this is not a world where weak enforcement of our laws is a good thing. Between 1980 and 2007, the number of federal wage and hour inspectors declined by 31 percent and the number of enforcement actions fell by 61 percent. By contrast, the civilian labor force grew 52 percent during this same period. And while the U.S. Department of Labor has added more investigators under the Obama administration, the current federal staffing level of 1,006 is still below its 1980 peak. (The picture looks even worse for enforcement of health and safety laws.)
In the same vein, there is nothing to cheer about when, for example, 2.5 million home care workers are exempted from minimum wage and overtime protections, which has driven down job quality, increased turnover, and caused staffing shortages in this critical industry.
So let me suggest a different definition of economic freedom. Under this definition, economic freedom means being able to earn a living wage, being able to pay for electricity and rent, being able to afford child care and health care, being able to save for college, and being able to put enough aside for retirement. In short, “freedom from want,” which not coincidentally comes to us from FDR, the father of the minimum wage.
Back then, the fight was to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that businesses couldn’t compete without child labor and sweatshops. Now the fight is to set a strong wage floor and enforce it, against arguments that multinational corporations with billions a year in profits can’t afford to raise their wages to the poverty line. In both cases, the stakes remain the same: the strength of our families, our economy, and our respect for the labor of others.
Annette Bernhardt is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and policy co-director of the National Employment Law Project.
Cross-posted from the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal Blog
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak, Pool