By JOHN BURBANK
(Aug. 25, 2016) — If you work in downtown Seattle, you can’t ignore the construction.
Eight years ago construction ground to a halt, with big pits filling up with rain water. Now every street seems to be an obstacle course, as front loaders run amok and traffic cops try to sort out construction from commuting. But we shouldn’t get self-satisfied about this boom, because as you walk by every new construction project you will also walk by dozens of homeless people, people who weren’t there eight years ago, either.
This is the tale of at least two cities, one humming with Amazonian energy and money, transforming Seattle and how all Americans and for that matter, people all over the world, buy all kinds of stuff. Another is the people completely left out, through bad choices, or hard luck, or official welfare policy that kicks families in need off of public assistance, or unemployment, or drug abuse and alcohol addiction, or mental illness or post-traumatic stress after coming home from America’s imperial adventure in Iraq.
Another city is composed of working-class people trying to make ends meet on minimum wages, while paying rent, and coming up with their share of health care premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and child care expenses. They are joined by the upper middle class, people who are either saddled with huge student debt and out-sized mortgages, or pay exorbitant rent, and watch a quarter of their household income melt away every month to pay for their kids’ child care, while they are doing what our society believes is best: work.
You can see another group of workers on your way to Seattle, heading to work at Boeing, hanging onto good jobs which seem more and more precarious, as Boeing downsizes employment while enjoying a $6 billion tax credit from the state of Washington.
You can pick out different occupations and wonder, why do people even bother? So while parents are paying an arm and a leg for child care, the child care workers themselves are working themselves into poverty. The typical hourly wage for an early learning teacher is $13.05, having dropped 20 cents since 2010. Assistant teachers get $10.86. Working full-time, that comes out to $22,500 a year. If they are single, they pay over $1,000 of that for health insurance premiums. If they get sick, they can pay another $1,500 in out-of-pocket costs. So by the end of the year, they may be down to $20,000, and that doesn’t include rent, food, car insurance, phone bills, clothes, glasses, or any other necessities or the things that constant advertising entices us to buy.
This recipe of unhappiness, of uncertainty, of economic precariousness prevails among the down-and-out, the machinists who are paid pretty good, the caregivers we entrust with our children, the home health aides who care for the infirm and disabled, the former manufacturing workers who are scrambling for retail jobs.
Looking to Labor Day and the central place of work and family, all of us can think of a world in which, when you have a child, you can take time off from work to care for this newborn, and get partial compensation to help pay the bills. We can imagine affordable child care. Our children could get all the teaching and encouragement needed to go onto community college and university. We could make higher education affordable for our kids. We can put in place a minimum wage that enables workers to live with dignity. We can retire without fear of dying in poverty.
These “things” are possible. In fact, in many parts of the world, including our neighbors just 100 miles north, these things are part of the fabric of everyday life — for everyone. Here in Washington state we can start with increasing the minimum wage across our state and guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers.
That’s what Initiative 1433 does. You get to decide with your vote to put I-1433 into law this November.
That’s a small start, enabling us to move from hopes and dreams to a reality of progress for ourselves and our children, all of our children. This journey will take solidarity and time, fashioning an economy that works for all of us.
E pluribus unum — out of many, one.