Now, we must gear up for the next progressive battle, the one that will define young progressives such as me and potentially our nation for decades. Fortunately, many progressives are already fighting in the trenches on the issue. In fact, progressives have rallied around it time and again in American history. Some in our ranks refer to it as economic opportunity. Others call it income inequality and some wealth disparity.
President Obama agrees about its paramount importance. In December 2013, he remarked, “… Making sure our economy works for every working American … is the defining challenge of our time.”
To tackle this problem head on, we should return to ideas that have always served our progressive community and our larger nation. As we accomplished in California last year, we must raise the federal minimum wage. But this time, we could follow what San Jose voters approved in 2012 – indexing the minimum wage so it’s tied to inflation and thus increases regularly, just as ten other U.S. states currently do. That way, we avoid waging the same war every few years and manage the expectations of businesses so they can properly prepare.
Personally, I once briefly wrestled with the minimum wage issue. With an open mind, I listened to small business owners and economists who contend that a rise in the minimum wage could reduce the number of people employed. But this month, the Congressional Budget Office found that lifting the federal minimum wage to a level similar to San Jose’s would lift 900,000 workers above the poverty line.
When we read findings that 1 out of every 2 families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in at least one public assistance program costing nearly $7 billion a year, and when we hear the painful stories of those workers struggling to make ends meet, we know our system isn’t working. Recently, even our Republican peers in California, as well as major American companies such as Gap Inc., are coming around to the idea of a higher minimum wage.
To expand economic opportunity, we must consider other policies that aid workers, such as increasing paid parental leave. Sadly, America slumps alongside Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland as the only countries that do not offer this benefit to new parents. Speaking of families, Democrats and Republicans in this Valley agree that we need comprehensive immigration reform. To ensure both our middle and low-wage workers can live in this Valley as they climb up its ladder, we must also continue to explore affordable housing policies such as impact fees and inclusionary zoning.
My boss, Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, joined his colleagues in directing County staff to explore an ordinance that would address the problem of wage theft – when employers take advantage of vulnerable workers by refusing to fairly pay them for their work. In addition, local and state governments must protect workers living from paycheck to paycheck by cracking down on predatory lenders who charge exorbitant rates while encouraging alternatives that build long-term credit, savings and financial security. While we should protect those in our workforce who are most vulnerable, we should also keep a watchful eye on those most powerful.
Many people are outraged by skyrocketing executive compensation, which has exemplified the Grand Canyon-like gap between the working class and those at the top. As President Obama cited, “Whereas in the past, the average CEO made about 20 to 30 times the income of the average worker, today’s CEO now makes 273 times more.” [Link] From 1979 to 2007, the income of the top 1 percent of Californians shot up almost 200 percent while every other Californian experienced only a 13 percent bump.
These trends cannot continue. It’s up to young progressives to be at the forefront of this fight by researching, debating and pursuing a mix of policies that maximize economic opportunity for all. Once again, the progress and success of our nation depend on it.
Written by Alex Shoor, NLC Advisory Board and Class of 2013.
Alex Shoor is a policy aide for Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager. He is also an advisory board member and 2013 fellow of the Silicon Valley Chapter of the New Leaders Council.
Originally posted on The Left Hook.