Broken Bootstraps

We all know the saying, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”. It means that you improve your situation by your own efforts. It is lauded; if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps (your shoe laces), that is a good thing. You are hardworking and you persevere. It is the definitive expression of American self-reliance and individualism.

It is also impossible to do.

That’s what a new report tells us about working families in Maine trying to earn a decent living. It’s near impossible given the wages many big companies pay their workers.

The Maine People’s Alliance (MPA) released the report, Broken Bootstraps: Falling Behind on Full Time Work, at a February 27 state house press conference. The Alliance for a Just Society, of which MPA is a member, prepared the report.

The report puts the spotlight on Mainers’ wages. In Maine today, 90 percent of all jobs pay less than the amount minimally needed to support a family of four.

By this, I mean the cost to pay for: food, housing and utilities, transportation, health care, child care, household, clothing, and personal items, savings, and state and federal taxes. There are no frills here.

According to the report, to pay for these simple items just for him or herself, a worker in Maine would need to earn $15.40 per hour. Barely half (53%) of Maine jobs pays this much. The living wage for a single adult with two children is $28.92 an hour. Only one in five jobs in Maine pays this much.

These low-wage-paying companies are not small businesses, but our largest corporations like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Macy’s. Sixty-six (66) percent of low-wage workers are employed by companies with more than 100 employees. The vast majority of these companies are lucrative (meaning they were profitable in the last three years and are earning more now than they did before the recession hit).

The top, low-wage employer, Wal-Mart, has 1,400,000 employees nationwide. Last year Wal-Mart paid its workers on average less than $10 per hour while the company’s highest paid executive took home $18 million.

And these are the same companies that get tax breaks and subsidies. The state of Maine has provided three Wal-Mart locations here subsidies worth about $22.2 million.

For too many hardworking Mainers, their bootstraps are broken. The companies where they work do not pay a fair wage, let alone health insurance. They cannot rely on publicly-funded health insurance because the governor has turned his back on 100% federal funding already set aside to expand healthcare in Maine. They have no one to care for their children while they work because the governor and legislature cut Head Start and Maine’s childcare subsidy program. They also pay more in state and local taxes than their employers.

Mainers deserve better. All they ask for is a fair shake and a fair share in their employer’s prosperity. They simply need public policies that strengthen their bootstraps so that they can make ends meet.