February 25, 2021

Time to end a double standard

 Among other things, Jesus was a master of the one-liner. The gospels are full of zingers that cut to the heart of the matter.

One of my favorites is a line he used about the misplaced priorities of some of his opponents: “Blind guides, you strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.”

At that time, many religiously observant people would strain the water they drank to avoid swallowing unclean insects. It was Jesus’ way of pointing out that, sometimes, we make a big deal of small things while ignoring major ones.

There are plenty of examples of that today. One of the biggest has to do with different attitudes toward the rich and the poor (come to think of it, Jesus had another camel/needle’s-eye zinger about that).

It’s long been known to public health researchers that high levels of inequality in wealth and income have negative effects on diseases, mortality, longevity, crime, addiction, happiness, social trust and other quality-of-life issues. And, in 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that income inequality was the highest it had ever been since it began tracking it.

COVID-19 made all that worse. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and benefits or have had to cut back on hours of work. Many are in danger of foreclosure or eviction when protections expire.

Meanwhile, the international humanitarian group Oxfam, in a report appropriately titled “The Inequality Virus,” found that, while “Over two million people have died, and hundreds of millions of people are being forced into poverty while many of the richest — individuals and corporations — are thriving. Billionaire fortunes returned to their pre-pandemic highs in just nine months, while recovery for the world’s poorest people could take over a decade.”

According to The Guardian, a Swiss bank recently reported that “billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter [27.5%] at the height of the crisis from April to July, just as millions of people around the world lost their jobs or were struggling to get by on government schemes.”

Thanks mostly to the stock market, the wealth of billionaires increased to $10.2 trillion, up from the previous peak of $8.9 trillion in 2017. The number of billionaires also increased, from 2,158 to 2,189, in the same period.

That would be the camel we’re swallowing.

The gnat that’s being strained out is hesitancy to pass a long-overdue measure to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 over several years. The minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for nearly a dozen years and is now, obviously, worth less that it was then.

According to economist Dean Baker, if the minimum wage had kept pace with gains in worker productivity since 1968, it would be around $24 an hour today.

It’s an idea supported by a vast majority of Americans. The Pew Research Center has found that over two-thirds of Americans (67%) support the increase to $15. This includes a substantial number of Republicans (43%), including a majority of self-described Republican moderates.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates that passing the increase would benefit around 40 million Americans, over 38 million adults, nearly 24 million full-time workers, 23 million women, over 11 million parents, 5.4 million single parents and the parents of 14.4 million children. In 2019, the EPI estimated that this would benefit 255,000 workers in West Virginia.

These are the front-line workers who put their bodies, health and lives on the line to keep the country going in the midst of this crisis. It’s time to do right by them.

Jesus also said, “The laborer deserves to be paid.”

(This appeared as a column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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