Senator David Watters

Remarks on House Bill 1403

            Our debate today on the minimum wage recalls an earlier one in Thoreau’s Walden when he considered the value of labor in a rapidly changing economy.  He wrote,

“Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his . . . neighbors so well off — that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed — he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the [lawyer’s] to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.” Today, our working poor have their labor to sell, but in an economy that seems not worth its while to pay a living wage.  Thoreau remarked on those who “live lives of quiet desperation,” and those are the lives our working poor lead on $7.75 an hour.

Today, the question is what is our neighbors’ work worth to our society, and how shall it be paid for?  Those who care for the bodies of our elders, serve our food, do the heavy work and the tedious tasks, shall they be paid a wage on which to live, perhaps support a family, find a place to live in safety and some comfort, somewhere near where they work, or shall wages be partial payment of these costs, with the rest borne by public assistance, or long hours with multiple jobs, reliance on church, charity, family, and neighbors? 

We hear talk about the marketplace setting a minimum wage, but then why have a minimum at all?  And just who is it we look in the face and say you are, as the dictionary has it, “the least, the least quantity or amount possible, assignable, allowable, or the like.”Civilized society hasn’t tolerated a market for human labor. For goods perhaps, but we decided people weren’t chattel during the Civil War, for one’s labor cannot be so alienated from the human being, body and soul, as to be traded like cattle.  Society was repelled by a market in child labor a century ago—there is a correspondence between factory owners in Portsmouth and Dover complaining that they were running out of 9 and 10 year olds and might soon have to hire adults at adult wages.  Social benefits and a sense of commonweal are expressed in FICA, income taxes, earned income tax credits, all means of setting wage policy.  No market in labor, but a cost of labor modified by social costs of wages too low. We are a human society, not a marketplace.

Sometimes it seems to me the American economy keeps the working poor down with a boot to the neck, lifting it just enough to let them breathe, but not enough to speak, “Why?” “Do you mean to starve us?”

Today I want to speak for the working poor of Barrington, Dover, Rollinsford, and Somersworth, so they will know we hear them. Minimum wages mean $290 a week, or after taxes, $268.  In my community, an average one-bedroom apartment costs nearly $275.00 a week, and then there are the costs of a car to get to work, or public transportation, clothing, heat, electricity, other household expenses, and the list goes on. Taking with other senators this week the “Minimum Wage Challenge,” it quickly became obvious to me that I couldn’t live and work in Dover without public support for food and housing.  The usual amount provided for food is $37.75 a week, so I went to Janetos, a local downtown market where people without transportation can shop at good prices, and, given the kind of community Dover is, everyone feels welcome and accepted.  $5.45 a day meant careful meal planning. A loaf of bread, peanut butter, eggs, lots of potatoes and pasta, a can of tomatoes, some cheese, two pieces of chicken, a head of broccoli, carrots, milk, and toiletries.  As the funds dwindled, I felt that anxiety of not having enough, putting things back on the shelf, buying by lowest price for a smaller quantity, and seeing that any staple, such as flour, oil, coffee, would mean not enough food for meals.  In planning for one peanut butter sandwich a day for lunch, I recalled when I was working in a factory or in construction filling my lunch box with four to six sandwiches, fruit, cookies, milk, and eating every crumb to keep up strength for hard work.  There’s just not enough to keep body and soul together.

At Janetos, a woman overheard our conversation, and volunteered that she worked at a local welfare office.  Soon she was in tears describing the desperate need for help among the working poor and those laid off.  “Come by on the fifth of the month when food vouchers drop, and you will see hungry people.  We are instructed not to spend more than five minutes with each client, and it’s just not enough time to help them fill out forms to get help.” She cried, “It’s so hard to see people suffer week after week.”

Everyday experiences become a crisis on minimum wage.  I had some surgery this week—would Medicaid have covered the procedure and the $25.00 copay, or would I have had to put it off, try to ignore the problem, and hope for the best?  Or when to fill the tank, looking for a gas station with prices a few pennies less, and seeing the $40.13 it cost just to get to work for a week meant 5-1/2 hours of pay. My old car’s due for an oil change, too. Every day becomes an emergency when the tank runs low.

Given minimum wage, and that the lowest-price apartment I could find in Dover was $850 on Craig's list, I would have to find public housing or housing assistance to survive.  I spoke with Cindi Wiggins at the Dover Housing Authority, and anyone who knows her or the Authority knows there is a great staff and a great facility, so there is considerable demand and a long waiting list for housing assistance.  DHA manages two properties, and waiting lists can be from a couple of months to 3.5 or more years, and the growth in demand has been huge lately.  DHA provides service for Dover, Barrington, and Rollinsford in my District. Dover is squeezed for financial resources not only due to the increase in demand but also due to the loss of voucher money in the Federal budget sequester. I was told that many of the employees at DHA, including social workers, qualify for housing assistance, and many have to work two jobs to cover rent.

Rents have gone up.  Many senior citizens lost their savings in the recession, and their houses are now being foreclosed.  Dover sees families seeking jobs, good schools and a safe community, which is what we all want for our children.  Given demographic trends, we need people to move here from out of state, but can they make a living? At the Dover Housing Authority, the great majority of people seeking assistance are the working poor and seniors who have gone back to work at least part time due to financial difficulties and losing their homes.

I would have to turn to other sources for help while waiting for housing assistance.  Without family in the area, there would be no one to take me in.  I would need to turn to Community Action for heating assistance and help with the electric bill, and to Dover City Welfare for more consistent rental help beyond emergency assistance.

Walking around Dover, I see homeless people, people living in their cars, and families living in abandoned properties without heat or electricity.  Dover is a City known for its caring and effective city agencies, as well as its efforts to develop workforce housing, so to see the difficulty someone working in the city faces finding safe and adequate housing on a low income means we have to raise the minimum wage.  Government agencies are by necessity paying for services because people can't get by on minimum wage.

So here we are today, at the end of a legislative session in which bipartisan, hard work has produced great social and economic good, whether through a balanced budget that funds essential services, or healthcare protection.  How is it that we don’t solve this problem?  Can’t we as the Shakers asked, put our hands to work and our hearts to God and consecrate our labor to the dignity of labor? Scripture advises, pay the laborer before his sweat dries or the sun sets, for they await their due as our duty to humanity and community.

This is not a partisan issue, for in the past, in this chamber and in Washington, the minimum wage has been raised with support from Republicans and Democrats.  Can we not craft a bipartisan New Hampshire solution to raise the minimum wage with the support of the Business and Industry Association, Chambers of Commerce, Labor, and social welfare advocates?  Our neighboring states have done so, and some of their economies are producing more jobs, have less unemployment, and a higher economic growth rate.  When a bill like this fails, I believe we have missed an opportunity to provide for the general welfare of all the people. We can stretch out our hands to those whose hands are hardened or chafed soft by work, to hands supple with youthful promise or wrinkled and gnarled with age, and seal a promise that we will work together to work for them.