When a worker at a big box store struggles to pay her rent, delays dental treatment, can’t take a day off to care for her sick child, and is falling behind on her student loan payments, it is clear that things have gone seriously wrong. Yet this worker is not alone. Many thousands of people in our state are struggling every day to meet their fundamental needs, regardless of whether they have a job or not.
Workers simply cannot live on the poverty wages paid by many employers. Since 1999 Vermont has regularly calculated how much a worker must earn to meet her and her family’s needs: It is significantly more than the minimum wage. Yet over the past decade wages at the bottom end have decreased in value, while top earners have seen their income rise. Our tax and budget policy has a lot to do with that. Each year, the debate over the state budget affirms tax breaks for wealthy individuals and businesses, which in turn prompts deeper cuts to the public services that are essential to people’s lives. The public goods taken for granted elsewhere in the world — universal health care, free early and college education, affordable housing, public transportation — appear out of reach for people in this country. Even Vermont’s courageous move to a universal, publicly financed health care system is being undermined, step by step, by an industry that profits from the way things are.
If we want to stop this race to the bottom, this perennial cycle of shrinking household incomes, incentives for more low-wage jobs, cuts to public services and exclusion of many families from public goods such as health care and higher education, we need our governor and legislators to take action. Let’s change the minimum wage to a livable wage. Let’s secure people’s right to work with dignity, starting this year with paid sick days for all. And let’s act on the People’s Budget bill, which requires the state budget to start with a focus on people’s needs, and then make tax decisions that follow those needs and advance equity.
A needs-based budget and livable wage go hand in hand. A significant chunk of public spending has long been used to subsidize companies that pay poverty wages, refuse to provide benefits and fail to protect workers’ rights. Much of this precarious work is done by women who, as primary carers for their children, are forced to cycle in and out of employment because they risk losing their jobs when a child falls ill. When we give tax breaks and other subsidies to their employers, why don’t we attach human rights conditions to these incentives? Instead, many companies that benefit from public money end up shifting the cost of food, health care and housing for their workers onto public services and programs. Ironically, the very same companies that rely on public programs to supplement their poverty wages are causing the defunding of those services through refusing to pay their fair share in taxes. This means our state uses public resources to bump up business profits rather than secure the needs and rights of people.
No one should receive a wage so low that it does not allow an adequate standard of living; everyone has the right to a livable wage. No one should fear losing their job because of a sick child at home; everyone has the right to basic workplace protections. No one should be burdened by unaffordable rent, tuition, or medical bills; everyone has a right to heath care, education, and housing. Instead of treating these public goods as expensive commodities, we need a more equitable tax system that reduces income inequality and raise the resources for providing public goods.
Improving the lives of thousands of workers, women and men, and the many thousands who struggle to access housing, health care, and education, should be our goal this legislative session. By adopting a livable wage, paid sick days and a needs-based budget, Vermont can take a big step toward human rights for all.
Join us this Saturday, on International Women’s Day, for a Women’s March For Dignity in Montpelier to show Governor Peter Shumlin and the Vermont legislative leadership that we must take action now.
Mary Gerisch lives in Bennington and is the president of the Vermont Workers’ Center (www.workerscenter.org), a statewide grassroots organization of people working for human rights and real democracy.