Why Hard Work Does Not Pay

If there is a single idea that conservatives love to propose, it is that people who work hard, enjoy a bountiful life. Hard work is a refrain heard continually throughout their debates, on conservative talk radio and on their TV stations. For the most part, it is a fraud perpetrated on the truly hard-working people in this nation.

I have mentioned before on occasion on this site that I often visit Subway for lunch and occasionally for breakfast. Subway, as most people know, is a down market restaurant that serves customised sandwiches. The customer decides which ingredients he wants on his sandwich, and the Sandwich Artists behind the counter put it all together for you. A novel idea that works well, so well that Subway is the largest fast food franchise on Earth, larger than McDonalds in terms of number of outlets.

Most people have no idea what goes on in the average Subway. All they know is that they walk into the shop, and someone comes and makes their sandwich. Easy, so easy. Running a shop like this is anything but easy. Early in the morning, before most people are awake, the first employee of the day opens up to get everything ready for opening, often two hours before it opens.

At some point before opening, a supply truck will arrive with some of the necessary supplies. Things like lettuce arrive prepackaged and pre-cut in boxes. These boxes need to be stored, some opened ready for the first customers. Those vegetables that do not come prepackaged have to be sliced and diced. The dishes need to be washed, the floors and rest rooms cleaned, chairs rearranged.

The employees never stop, there is always something to be done, something to be cleaned, or cut, or arranged, customers to be served, bread to be made. And all this, I have gleaned just by watching them work. There are probably things that go on that would shock many people. These are some of the hardest working people in America, the fast food workers, the cleaners, the people who shovel our filth, make our food, and make the nation a better place to live.

Yet, most people look down on them, disparage them, accuse them of laziness because they cannot afford to care for their children, to provide health care for themselves, to repair their vehicles when things break down. If hard work were truly such a beautiful thing, shouldn’t they be wealthy, ‘they enjoy the fruits of their labors instead of slaving away at a dead-end job, year after year, never being able to take time off, even to see doctors, or attend to medical problems.

I saw one shop manager who damaged his knee back at work a few days later, working through the pain because he did not want to take time off. A few months later an employee broke his shoulder, and again was back at work ignoring the pain.

The federal minimum wage in the United States is $7.25/hr. At eight hours a day, 20 days a month, all year round, that is $13,920 per year. Subtract FICA and Medicare, that comes to $12,876 after tax. In many states, the employee pays state tax, up to 6% of income, sometimes city tax, in addition to Sales Tax. Subtract from that, transport costs, clothing costs, medical costs, rent, and utilities. Is it possible to live on an income that low?

Only 19 states mandate that the minimum wage should be above the federal minimum, including Washington State, which has set its minimum at $9.19. Why is it, then, that in New York City, the most expensive city in the nation, minimum wage is set much lower, at the federal level, $7.25. Where you live now depends on what you earn, regardless of the cost of living. How does anyone in New York City survive on a minimum wage this low?

Conservatives care little for these problems, these obstacles in the way of hard-working people. During the recent election campaign, some conservative candidates, including Mitt Romney  were disparaging the poor, saying that they believed they were entitled to things like refrigerators and handouts from the government.

Congressional Republicans spend much of their time fighting to give ever large tax breaks to the wealthy. Many international corporations, including General Electric not only do not pay taxes, but receive rebates from the government. Wal-Mart, the largest employer in the country, pays its cashiers an average of $8.54/hr, ranging between $6 and $13/hr. An overnight stocker at Wal-Mart earns an average of $9.52/hr, with salaries between $7 and $15/hr.

The average worker at Wal-Mart works 34 hours a week. With the salaries they are paid, that is barely enough to survive. The CEO of Wal-Mart earned $18.7m in 2010, a mere 1,201 times the average sales associates salary of $8.81/hr.

Wal-Mart revenue in 2010 was $408Bn. Without its workers, Wal-Mart would be dead in the water, and yet, the Walton family is worth an estimated $102.7Bn as of 2012. They refuse to pay their workers a living wage, refuse to pay their health care costs. Most associates are kept on as temporary workers, despite their working full-time.

They are unable to find alternative work since Wal-Mart can call them at any time to come in to work. The are often locked into the stores at night, working without refreshments or breaks. Wal-Mart cannot claim that they cannot afford to pay their workers more.

These are the hard-working men and women of America, who slave away under workshop conditions for wages that do not pay the bills or allow them to have a reasonable standard of living. These workers are really no more than indentured servants, eking out a living far from the eyes of the idle rich, the bankers, the executives and the politicians in this country.

Politicians are more willing to fight every day for those that already have everything, haggling over a few percentage points in tax increases, while at the bottom end of the scale, the minimum wage has languished for years without a decent raise.

In Australia, the minimum wage is A$15/hr, or around US$17. Workers in Australia also receive full health benefits from the government, and social security when they retire.

Working in the United States is looking more and more like the Third World, with conditions little different from parts of Africa for many workers. Republicans and their conservative masters in the business world have entirely abrogated their responsibility to the workers. The Democratic Party does little to fight for the people who elect them, instead prostrating themselves before the pressure from the right-wing.

The argument that employers cannot afford to pay their workers more rings hollow. With record profits across the board in the business world, shareholders and executives are padding their salaries, which could easily be paid to workers. This is a shell game, with the workers losing while the lazy wealthy become wealthier.

What many in the business world just have not yet realised is that if you kill the Golden Goose, your profits will drop inevitably. It is only when you have customers that can afford your products that you make money. Their greed will eventually kill their profits, and the economy. The only solution is a bottom up approach.

Bottom up economics will allow workers and consumers to decide which businesses to support and which not. Corporations should not receive subsidies at all. If they want to be part of the free market, government has no business paying them to be in business. Government should be creating jobs, good jobs, with decent benefits. That is the only thing that will save this economy from the scourge of low wages and high unemployment.

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