It took the pandemic for many of us to broaden our definition of essential worker and to see that those we tout as “essential” to the functioning backbone of our country are not financially valued. We compensate many essential workers poorly. They are paid minimum wage, not a livable wage. Today an employee working 40 hours a week making the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour earns $15,080 in a year. Last year the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that minimum wage workers couldn’t rent a two-bedroom apartment, at market rate, in any state in the United States. That’s a harsh reality and it’s daily life for many Americans. According to the Economic Policy Institute, perhaps not surprisingly, workers of color are more likely than white workers to earn what they label poverty wages.
The fact that things change but stay the same was driven home to me last month when I took a tour in Colonial Williamsburg.
Like many historical spots in our country, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to better incorporate the lived experience of enslaved people into their representations. So, I was looking forward to a tour titled ‘Freedom’s Paradox’ focused on the institution of slavery in a fledgling nation fighting for freedom. I moved along with the group from one site to another, listening intently to the guides. My ears perked up when the guide portraying one of the landed gentry discussed the provision of food. “Enslaved people in Williamsburg were given two pounds of cornmeal and ½ lb. of meat a week even though they burned about 5000 calories a day working,” he told us. I had to do a quick Google search to learn this amount of food equaled about 4500 calories a week for people burning about 30,000 in a typical six-day workweek. A guide portraying an enslaved person continued: “Slaves caught stealing food for themselves or their children were punished severely. Sometimes by a public beating or even by death dependent on how egregious the theft was deemed.” That part of the tour concluded by noting that the House of Burgesses, the governing body of the Colony of Virginia, had set the standard of what amount of food should be provided… at a minimum.
That’s when it struck me: essential workers in the colonial era and those today, were and still are paid, in terms of what’s needed to exist, to barely survive, certainly not to thrive. Those setting the standards, those governing, then and now, seem to have only nominal regard for people essential to their economic survival. And just as those enslaved in colonial times suffered from malnutrition, poverty wages continue to have long-term impact. Food deprivation and the reliance on cheap unhealthy foods have consequences even today, generations later, on the health status of African Americans. Similarly, the inability of many, then and now, to earn a livable wage — in money or in food — leads to a wage theft system with deleterious effects.
While we pay many who provide essential services minimum wage, most of those who shape the country’s laws and policies are entirely out of touch with that reality. This was made crystal clear in 1992 when then-President George H. W. Bush, on national television, failed to know the cost of milk during a presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. That incident spotlighted a disconnect, one that still exists between those living ordinary lives and many governing our country. Thirty years later, the nation debates the pros and cons of raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, as many local and state jurisdictions have done, while failing to recognize or acknowledge the impact of poverty wages on our society… on our country.
I wonder what ‘essential’ means to many of our leaders. Not just in government, in commerce too. When I hear the leaders of Fortune 500 companies proclaim ‘Black Lives Matter,’ I look to see if they have supported greater benefits for their workers, many of whom are African American, or a $15/hour minimum wage. Rarely do I find that level of commitment. Their bottom line—their profits—not racial equity, is their motivation. Many are “talking the talk,” but not “walking the walk.” So, while nominally celebrated in media posts, too many essential workers of today are viewed as having minimal value by today’s leaders just as the enslaved people were in the 1700s in Colonial America. Check it out when the next elected official or business leader announces support for racial equity. Minimum wage, minimum value. Let’s all support a livable wage, a wage for “essential workers” and all workers to thrive, not just survive.