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Op-ed: A living wage is in reach, and Utah should make it a priority

Published June 13, 2014 4:52 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As the discussion of whether to raise the minimum wage presses forward, we need to realize that one of the greatest threats to our nation is the loss of our middle class. The increasing gap between the rich and the poor is not good — for the rich or poor.

Because we are a consumer-driven economy, our economy relies on people buying products. I once tried to explain this to my 12-year-old son in terms of sneakers since he loves basketball and always wants the most popular sneakers. A rich person, over their entire life, might buy 50 pairs of sneakers, though they may be more expensive brands and versions. In contrast, the poor person might buy just a handful of the most inexpensive. However, neither of these models is sustainable, economically. What we need is a strong middle-class with thousands of people buying reasonably-priced sneakers. That creates the stable market our capitalist system is based on. However, whether it's sneakers, refrigerators, or houses, the data is clear – our wages are not keeping up with inflation and cost of living, and our middle class, and their budgets, is shrinking. Our economy will pay the price.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford realized the importance of paying good wages, even though his goal was to make cars as cheaply as possible. His $5-a-day wage was almost double the prevailing wage of his time. This salary helped create blue-collar middle-class workers at Ford who could purchase the cars they made. It also reduced Henry Ford's turnover at his company, which offset the higher wages in the company's ledger.

Today, globalism and technology have pushed down wages in the United States. Neither, of course, are bad. Technology is likely to be the future of industry in this country. However, our nation will not succeed long-term by pushing down wages even further. It will only continue the death-spiral of our middle-class, with all their purchasing power. We must take action now. Our leaders must be good managers and good stewards for our economy. They must learn the lessons of Henry Ford so that we can all reap the benefits.

There are several solutions, a strong education system being at the top of the list. However, ultimately, our citizens need to be paid a living wage. If not, we will continue to see poverty-wage work become the new standard in this country. These jobs, at these wages, creates a need for increased government support in the form of food stamps, housing and other social services, not to mention the harmful effects on our family structures.

Living wages are cost-effective not only in the macroeconomic sense, but also in the micro, because they often lead to increased efficiency and consistency among employees. And as Henry Ford realized, workers are more likely to stay in their jobs, thereby lowering money spent on recruitment and training, and creating a base of employees who are growing more and more skilled at their jobs the longer they stay.

As a matter of principle, because life is not just about economics, all Utahns should be able to support their families if they work. We all strive for the basics: to pay our rent or mortgage, to afford to put food on our table, reasonable health care costs and, if fortunate, a vacation once in a while. Is that too much to ask? I don't think so. We have a duty to make sure that a full-time job, in this state and in this country, affords our citizens those things.

It benefits our families and our economy, and it's the right thing to do.

Peter Corroon is executive director of the Utah Democratic Party.