The 112th congress has been, without disclaimers, one of the most counterproductive and divisive in the last century; a Republican-controlled funhouse of conservative/libertarian talking points steamrolled through the voting process and destined to die on the Senate floor. President Obama, in the meantime, has seen almost every major initiative, appointment, or bill stalled out on the Senate floor by filibuster-happy Republican minority. The Republican tactic here has been simple: stall out the Democratic agenda until we can get a conservative in the White House, or take the Senate. In the meantime, the GOP has been trying to point to Obama has a failed-policy President, or a do-nothing President, either of which would be the direct result of Republican obstructionism. This got me thinking, President Obama's only real opportunity to fulfill that "hope and change" promise from 2008 was in the first two years of his presidency. What consumed the majority of that time period? Healthcare Reform.
Obamacare has been, by all accounts, a precedent-setting piece of legislation to be sure. It was a major step toward making insurance companies and health providers accountable for their products, services, and pricing. It also took a historical step toward the socialist democratic ideal of providing every American citizen with adequate healthcare (if that label frightens you, consider public education, the U.S. postal service, and social security). However, there were elements of the healthcare plan that were so revolutionary as to be frightening to a large swath of the American public, something the Republican opposition wasted no time in harnessing. Now, with a few provisions of the Affordable Care Act as it was named under deliberation by the Supreme Court, it's possible that Obama's window of opportunity may have been for naught. If the Supreme Court, which is a demonstrably conservative and partisan group, announces in June that part or all of the bill is unconstitutional, it's likely that Democrats and President Obama have to go back to the drawing board.
Healthcare reform was undeniably an important issue to address, and I can see how it would be an attractive target for the Democratic leadership. Healthcare costs and the unbelievable lack of regulation of the healthcare market was creating a free-for-all on the American people's savings accounts. However, there's another avenue to help the American people that would have been a better use of their time and probably would not have been nearly as hard to pass, may have received slightly more bipartisan support, and would not be subject to a judicial review that could undo everything. That avenue is in raising the minimum wage to a "living wage".
In July of 2009, congress raised the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25. However, an individual working 40 hours a week and never taking vacation will still only earn slightly over $15,000 in a year. For a single parent with one child, $15,000 is beneath the poverty line. This essentially makes minimum wage a national endorsement of individuals within our workforce staying in poverty. If such a premium is placed on working and paying taxes, particularly by the political right (who are the most disinclined to support a minimum wage increase), then why is are the working poor such a wuickly growing segment of society? Increasing the minimum wage from something that maintains a class of working poor, to a federally mandated wage that would allow any individuals that work full-time, who have dependents, to be considered above the federal poverty line. Obama's first two years in office would have been better served by creating a "living wage" as a minumum wage, one guided less by federal poverty standards (which are notoriously unfair and prone to "gaps") and more by cost of living. Here is an easy reference list of my reasons for promoting a living wage over healthcare reform:
Economic stimulus - A living wage is more likely to stimulate the economy because it creates a healthier consumer class. As consumers purchase more, companies see larger revenue streams and increase hiring. The old, tired conservative mantra against raising minimum wage is predicated on the idea that most people in poverty do not work. This is patently untrue, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has shown. Instead, we should be looking at the possible investment to be made among those individuals living below the poverty line, and the incentive that a living wage would provide individuals to re-enter the workforce if they hadn't been previously. With a greater consumer class, economic recovery would be bolstered and unemployment would begin a stronger upward spiral. This is a far more "capitalistic" way of stimulating the economy than regulating a market to hold down costs which, indirectly, puts more money in the pockets of consumers.
Healthcare cost - One of the greatest inhibitors of cost equality in the healthcare industry is the underinsured or uninsured that are forced to use the costly care of an Emergency Room visit as their primary care. With a larger number of hosueholds earning a living wage, a larger number of people would be inclined to purchase health insurance. In addition, as a greater number of unemployed seek more menial employment, they'll be more likely to accept benefits such as employee-provided health insurance. Finally, as the middle class (in terms of household earnings) grows, peripheral aspects of healthcare such as preventative care, prenatal care, and geriatric care may see larger consumer traffic.
Real estate - Growing the middle class is the most reliable way to improve all markets. Of course, the hamstrung real estate market has been a hindrance to economic recovery since the downturn of 2008. As a result, the housing market is flush with empty homes awaiting buyers, which further dampens the surrounding housing market. By creating a living wage, individuals will be more able to afford homes in lower-middle markets. As those homes are purchased, and consumers increase their buying, the tradeoff to upper-middle class individuals is greater profits and an improved ability to purchase higher cost homes as well. It would be a slow-starting ripple effect, to be sure, but as long as lending practices stay sustainable, a living wage could greatly improve the health of the housing market.
Social responsibility - We have a responsibility, as a nation, to provide a way to success. That doesn't mean creating opportunities for people, it means providing individuals the ability to creating their own. Minimum wage, as it stands now, does not provide people with ample enough income to create those opportunities; whether it be purchasing a car to get to a job, purchasing a house to beign building equity, investing in a company, or just providing the bare necessities for their families. Even at $7.25 an hour, or $9.80 an hour (which has recently been proposed by Se. Tom Harkin, D-IA), an individual working in the U.S. should be at least paid enough, hourly or salary, to meet the basic expenses of what is required to create opportunities for oneself. We have a responsibility as a developed, democratic nation and world power to provide our citizens with at least that much.
Of course there is resistance from conservatives, who seem to pander to the business sector in all things, who say that not only will raising minimum wage not benefit those in poverty but it will also be detrimental to businesses. However, what businesses lose in wages to personnel, they will often see returned in the form of increased consumerism. Other say that increasing the minimum wage is further reason for companies to outsource their labor needs, which is just as much a tax code issue as it is one of corporate responsibility. There would be hurdles, had Obama chosen to pursue a living wage rather than healthcare reform, but I feel the benefit would have been more susbtantial than that gained from what ultimately became a watered-down effort to regulate the healthcare market. In addition, there is historical precedent in raising the minimum wage, which takes it out of the hands of a Supreme Court riddled with ideologues. Healthcare reform is undeniably needed in the U.S., but it's not nearly so pressing a concern as the millions of working (and non-working) poor in the country that have been used as political capital rather than invested in as human capital.