Friday, December 06, 2013

The Minimum Wage Should Be Tied To The Poverty Line

There has been talk about raising the minimum wage for a while now. As a citizen, I am surprised how haphazardly we legislate and calculate the minimum wage. The wage is passed into law without being tied to any economic measure and does not automatically increase with inflation. It is a static wage.

I would suggest that the minimum wage be calculated using the poverty line as a basis. But in that regard, I also feel that we do not adaquaty measure the poverty rate accurately and so such a change to how we calculate the minimum wage would require reevaluating the way we measure poverty in America.

The US government currently calculates the poverty line using a method determined by Mollie Orshansky (see who was an economist at the Social Security Administration who in 1964 designed the formula we use today to determine the poverty line for an internal research paper. At the time there was no other objective measure of "poverty" used by the government so she came up with her own using food cost data as the basis. 

When President Johnson launched his War on Poverty, the Orshansky formula became the official measure for poverty in the US. Remarkably, after nearly 50 years, the formula has not been adapted to fit modern conditions which has been one of the many criticisms leveled at the US government about how it measures poverty.

The Orshansky formula is quite simple as it is based upon food costs alone. In short, we take the food costs measures from the USDA for various sized family units and multiply that by three (because back in 1964 when this equation was devised, food costs represented about a third of one's basic living expenses). So for a family of 4, the estimated food costs are $7,683.30 and thus the poverty line is roughly $7,683.30 x 3 or $23,050 for a family of 4.

Immediately there is a major problem with this calculation -- food costs now only represent about one fifth of the average person's living expenses as food costs have dropped and housing costs have risen since the 1960s, acording to the Southern Poverty Law Center (see If you take this into consideration, the poverty line for a family of four should actually be $38,416.50 - the current formula used by the US government underestimates the poverty line by 40%!

There are other criticisms of the Orshansky formula, such as that it does not take housing costs into consideration and is not calculated relative to various regions within the country, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii. I argue that more nuanced approach to determining the poverty line should take into consideration all the factors we as a society expect for a healthy and productive people inducing average food costs, average housing costs, basic utilities, health care and transportation costs (to and from work by public transportation).

Unfortunately I don't have the time to research and calculate this more nuanced approach at this time and so if we just go by the Southern Poverty Law Center's adjustment of the Orshansky formula (that considers food costs representing one fifth of one's annual living expenses), for a single person the poverty line should be $19,150 and not $11,400 as currently calculated by the Department of Labor. If someone worked 50 weeks a year at a regular 40 hour a week job, with 2 weeks off for vacation, the minimum wage should be $9.58/hour.

Considering that if we take other factors into consideration like rent and health care, the minimum wage could be even larger based upon this method.

The point of this thought experiment was really to suggest the following:

1. We need a better formula to calculate the poverty rate, that takes into consideration the basics of living in a modern world including food costs, rent, utilities, health care and adequate transportation to and from work.
2. We need to base our minimum wage laws on this new poverty measure
3. When calculating the minimum wage, we should still consider a minimum of 2 weeks vacation.
4. We should consider adapting this discussion to not only discuss the bare minimum poverty levels and minimum wages. We should come up with levels that calculate the costs of not just surviving but of thriving in a modern country that include the costs of higher education, and leisure/engagement of cultural endeavors.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mandatory Public Service: Reviving Civic Responsibility in an Age of Bread and Circuses

In my spare time between work, sleep, commuting, diaper changes and an occasional meal, I have been slowly reading two books. One is Larry Sabato's "A More Perfect Constitution" and Bret Stephenson's "From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age".

The ideas in each of these books have found a happy home in my gray matter.

In "A More Perfect Constitution", a well written book by Larry Sabato which advocates for a new constitution, Sabato pushes the idea that every able-bodied able-minded citizen serve two years performing public service for their country at minimum wage and housed in public housing. His thinking is that such a program that requires everyone from all walks of life to live together and make the same wage may help each citizen better understand their fellow citizen. Furthermore, it may serve as a training ground for citizens to learned leadership skills that can further benefit the nation as a whole.

I find it an interesting idea. And it may serve two other purposes that Sabato didn't think of. The first is that it can serve as a modern day rite of passage. We don't have many or really any true rites of passage in our culture any more -- earning the right to vote and acceptance as an adult at 18 years only requires that you are capable of breathing long enough to see your 18th birthday. Rites of passage generally require you to remove yourself from your adolescent environment, experience some kind of hardship that "kills your childhood ego" and upon returning to your community some kind of community acceptance that you are now an adult. A nationally administered public service program can serve the purpose.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Majority Rules But Not Over Minority Rights

Proposition 8 (the gay marriage ban) has been overturned today by a Federal Court judge who ruled that the ban was a violation of the Constitution's 14th Amendment which states:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Denying gays to marry is to deny a segment of our population "equal protection of the laws."  What laws?  Well, the laws that give married couples tax benefits, hospital visitation rights, and inheritance of property owned by a deceased spouse, among others.  Gays who are in a committed relationship but who are denied the right to formalize their relationship in a state recognized marriage cannot be treated equally under the laws of the land and therefore any such ban on gay marriage would be unconstitutional.

But what of the argument that the court overturned the will of the majority?  Well, quite simply the majority doesn't always rule, my friends.  If it did, the South might still be segregated.  Majorities in a democratic society could theoretically harm the minority by denying it it's civil rights.  For this reason, the U.S. Congress and the States passed the Bill of Rights, a set of ten amendments to the Constitution that prevents Congress from passing laws that deprive people of their civil rights to practice the religion they want, to say what they want, to join groups they wish to associate with, to defend themselves, to not have their property taken away from them unless under due process, and to be compelled to incriminate themselves in court, among others.  If we truly had a raw majority rule in this country, civil rights could theoretically have been flushed down the toilet during the siting of our first Congress in the late 1700s.

Majority rule is not sacrosanct.  The majority cannot deny the civil rights of our fellow citizens.  The court ruled correctly today in terms of the law and in terms of our values as a secular republic.  If you wish to impose a religious value on the rest of the country then you are talking about living in an theocracy.  There are a few examples of functioning theocracies in the world today - Saudi Arabia and Iran are two that come to mind.  Frankly, I don't want to visit these countries and nor would I want to live in them.  I most certainly wouldn't want the U.S. to become a Christian theocracy.  Religion is too volatile a foundation to derive our civil laws.  Let religion rule your individual spirit if you so desire but do not impose it on those who may not believe in the same mythology.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Kauai County Road Workers Dowsing For Water

The last few days while commuting to work I have seen Kauai County road workers using dowsing rods on the side of Kuhio Highway apparently looking for a water main.

For those who don't know, dowsing is a "method" developed in the 16th century whereby a dowser uses either two L-shape rods or a Y-shaped branch to locate water in the ground.  Modern-day dowsers claim that the rods are attracted to water and therefore can accurately point out the location of water in the ground. However, numerous experiments show that dowsing works no better than chance -- meaning dowsing is bunk.

A sad side-note is that glorified dowsing rods called the ADE 651 were hocked to Iraqi police for $60,000 a pop to locate explosives in cars.  Of course, they didn't work and many people have died from car bombs that went undiscovered at security checkpoints no thanks to the ADE 651.  The US Government has since issued a formal warning to the millitary from buying these "bogus explosive detection" dowsing rods.

Clearly, searching for a water main on the side of a highway is not the same as letting car bombs get by a checkpoint but whoever used our tax dollars to buy dowsing "equipment" for Kauai County's road crew deserves to called out for their stupidity or at least their ignorance.  DOWSING DOESN'T WORK!  Please give the road workers proper tools to get their jobs done properly.  Every hour they waste hunting for a water main is tax dollars wasted.  I just hope that these dowsing rods didn't cost the County $60,000 each.