Ending Poverty As We Know It

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

Peter Ian Asen

Ending Poverty as We Know It:
Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage
by William P. Quigley
Temple University Press, 2003. 245 pp (inc. notes, bibliography, and index), $54.50 hardcover; $17.95 paperback.

THE PHENOMENON OF local living wage campaigns sweeping the country is one of the few causes for celebration in American politics. Led by unions, community organizations and religious groups, Americans are demanding that their local tax dollars fund jobs that pay a living wage.

In February 2003, in a sign that the movement may be extending beyond city employees and others who are paid with taxpayer dollars, Santa Fe, NM passed a living wage ordinance which applies to all employers with twenty-five or more employees in city limits.

But does the success of living wage campaigns in over 100 localities signal something grander on the horizon? William Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, and author of Ending Poverty as We Know It, argues that a constitutional amendment that would guarantee employment at a living wage for all is the best way to combat poverty in America.

Moreover, Quigley believes such an amendment is politically viable. Quigley’s book is concerned with a very real problem: the growth of low-wage, part-time, temporary and contingent work, which increasingly means that a job is not necessarily tantamount to “living.”

“Historically,” he writes, “the first response to poverty has been to advise the poor to work. But what if the poor are already working?”(3)

Quigley believes he has reason to be optimistic about his proposed constitutional solution. He was part of an initially successful campaign (approved by the voters, but later overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court) to raise the minimum wage for the entire city of New Orleans by one dollar per hour, a rare end-run around an unsympathetic state legislature in the Deep South.

He makes a strong argument that the idea of guaranteed living wages is “consistent with our national heritage and our national hopes” (94), given America’s belief in work as the antidote to poverty and the key to the “American Dream.”

Certainly, Quigley is not advocating anything particularly radical, the right<->ward drift of American politics notwithstanding. The concept of guaranteeing a job for all who wish to work, with an $8.50 guaranteed wage, or $10.50 without health care is more likely to save American capitalism than destroy it.

Still, it is difficult to take seriously Quigley’s sincere assertions that this can be done, and it can be done soon.

Some of the arguments that support Quigley’s assertion of feasibility are down<->right silly. For example, he notes that a varied cast of characters including Adolph Reed, Jr., the Labor Party, Reps. Lynn Woolsey and Jesse Jackson, Jr., and the National Jobs for All Coalition all have separately advocated for a guaranteed right to work at a living wage.

“The appeal of the idea is such,” he writes, “that it seems to have arisen in several places independently — further indication of the potential for future widespread support.” Tentative wording aside, one wonders if Quigley also thinks that “future widespread support” for single-payer health care is right around the corner, since that idea too has “arisen in several places

Quigley also places too much stock in the whims of the American public, as reflected in polls. He repeatedly cites (and redundancy is a problem for Quigley in this fairly short book) certain poll results as support for his argument, including a 2001 study that found over eighty percent of Americans “support creating temporary government work programs for the unemployed in needed areas such as school and roadwork construction.”

But then, a slim majority of Americans continue to approve of the job that George Bush is doing as president, which is difficult to reconcile with widespread support for a new New Deal.

Though Quigley is occasionally willing to dabble in the details of how the mandate of a living wage amendment could be carried out (for example, he suggests that the government augment the living wage for parents with children in a program similar to the Earned Income Tax Credit, but with more frequent payments), Quigley is often frustratingly vague on specifics. He admits to acting more as a visionary than a wonk.

Still, the vision is interesting, and there are valuable resources here. Quigley presents an historical view of America’s attitude towards poverty, and tracks responses throughout American history to the concepts of jobs for all and living wages as remedies.

He confronts myths about poverty with facts, and antiliving wage arguments with counterpoints. And he packs dozens of useful and at times surprising statistics into a heavily annotated text.

Quigley is loath to acknowledge that a lot more work needs to be done on the local level to lay the groundwork of support for a national living wage, let alone a guaranteed right to work.

Although he likes to highlight successes, as in Detroit, where a Chamber of Commerce spokesman said “we knew there was no way we could stop” a local living wage, Quigley ignores campaigns like the more than three-year long, well organized but thus far unsuccessful fight for a living wage in heavily democratic Providence.

If we cannot get a living wage in Providence, we may not be ready to fight for an amendment to the Constitution. But in the long run, more local successes can buoy the prospects for a national campaign.

ATC 109, March-April 2004