America's Cruel Political Math -- Where the Working Poor Equal Less Than Zero

Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form
Demonstrators in support of fast food workers protest outside a McDonald's as they demand higher wages and the right to form a union without retaliation, Monday, July 29, 2013, in New York's Union Square. Activists say hundreds of workers have walked off their jobs. They are demanding a minimum wage increase and calling for better benefits. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Remember the 2000 presidential campaign and the whole flap about "fuzzy math"? Those were the days, huh? In the 2010s, America's political math is not fuzzy but hard, cruel to the point of nearly inhuman, and so unrooted in common sense it makes the Flat Earth Society look like the National Academy of Science.

You've probably heard that last week the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office came out with a report on the proposal -- backed by President Obama and most Democrats on Capitol Hill -- to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Most places you looked, the headline was about jobs. The CBO -- a body that I have a lot of respect for, and still do -- found that one effect of a minimum wage hike would be to cause some employers to trim their payroll. Their rough estimate was that raising the minimum wage could cost 500,000 jobs nationwide -- although maybe as many as 1 million, and maybe none at all.

Conservative politicians and economists -- who've long made this their marquee argument against a raise for America's working poor -- raced in with a collective "told-you-so." Never mind that many economists believe that the CBO went outside the parameters of most research now on the books that shows little or no employment loss when the minimum wage has been increased in the past. (This state-of-the-art study, conducted right here in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, found zero impact on jobs.)

And never mind this: That Republicans who crowed for several days about the CBO report, who were suddenly the unemployed's best pals, have done NOTHING since the crash of 2008 to create jobs. That goes from opposing infrastructure work and other forms of economic stimulus, to seeking a repeal of Obamacare even though the head of the CBO (the same people who did their beloved minimum wage report!!!) says that health care reform is a job creator. Over the last five years, the only jobs that Republicans have been eager to create have been poll workers checking the IDs of elderly and minority voters and workers in the transvaginal ultrasound industry.

My hunch -- keeping in mind the legendary (and true) story of Henry Ford giving his assembly line workers a raise so they could afford to buy his Model T -- is that within a few years, a higher living wage for so many workers would create jobs in places like Wal-Mart, which is suffering economically now because too many low-wage workers can't even afford its low-end goods.

But for the sake of argument, let's accept the CBO number that a $10.10 minimum wage would cost a half-million jobs in the short term. Why is that even the headline number? The same report found that the proposed wage hike would also mean an improved standard of living for 16.5 million Americans, and that 1 million citizens who are now below the official poverty line would be raised up and over.

Let me re-state that: The $10.10 wage -- if you accept the CBO report -- would make life better for 33 TIMES as many people who would lose their job (for a time), and bring TWICE as many people out of poverty. Think how many working families would be able to get off food stamps and feed their kids a nutritious meal every night of the week, or not have to chose between going to the supermarket or paying the heating bill. or simply buy the things that we once considered the bare minimum of middle-class life in America. So why isn't that a slam dunk?

Before answering that question, let's also note that the minimum wage is just one of many policy debates in America in which policy initiatives that would help large numbers of citizens -- at the expense of the few -- are casually dismissed as simply not worth it.

Exhibit A, or course, is Obamacare. Yes, the chaos of cancellation notices late last year, before new options were available online, was highly regrettable. And under the system -- which is certainly flawed in comparison to the much better alternative of a single payer -- there will be a small pool of folks whose coverage isn't quite as good. But in the early months of the program, we also know that it's added millions of people who were uninsured -- certainly at least 4 million and probably more, plus the millions more with pre-existing conditions or under age 26 -- and would have increased rolls by millions more if some GOP governors like Pennsylvania's Tom Corbett weren't determined to play politics rather than connect their constituents with health care. These are people who will live healthier, maybe even longer lives, who won't be one doctor's bill away from bankruptcy -- yet that doesn't seem to compute in our civil ledger.

Programs for the poor and the so-called "working poor" never compute. Look at the farm bill that Congress passed and President Obama signed just this month. Lawmakers bent over backwards to ensure that farmers would keep their generous subsidies, but food stamp recipients got whacked -- $7.8 billion over the next decade, falling hardest here in the East where the poor are reeling from a brutal winter, and falling disproportionately on seniors and the disabled. Where was the urgency to keep this basic thread of the safety net intact?

There was none. This is where we are at as a society. After a generation in which millions of Americans -- especially the lower middle-class, the working poor -- have lost ground, we have a body politic that no longer sees it as part of its mission to make their life any better. There is no honest math here, no cost-benefit analysis -- basic policy changes that could help huge swaths of the American people in a time of crisis are routinely rejected or, in the case of Obamacare, stymied, for fear that a handful of the more politically visible classes might lose a little of what they have. The working class is the foundation of our 21st Century working pyramid -- our restaurant servers, our health-care aides, our store clerks -- and yet that are the new incarnation of James Baldwin's "Invisible Man"...or woman.

America wasn't always this heartless. It was 50 years ago this winter that a president made a "war on poverty" the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and not just a throwaway line, and he was applauded for that. A couple of years ago, I read a fascinating book about Robert Kennedy's 1968 campaign for president -- The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke -- and it was striking that RFK made eliminating poverty his signature issue; he even spent a couple of days visiting a Native American reservation on the Dakotas, not because it gained him a single vote but because he wanted to be there. Said Kennedy: "I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil."

There's no leader today -- not even President Obama, to be honest -- with that type of courage or commitment, and instead there's a huge class of so-called "leaders" who see more gain in lashing out at these folks as "moochers" instead of working to improve the options for these, their fellow Americans. And they and their enablers in talk radio, Fox News and elsewhere are conning lots of regular folks to buy into this, when mostly the beneficiaries are the wealthiest elites. Since 1973, worker productively in America has risen 80 percent, yet it was shareholders who benefited, as workers' wages only rose 11 percent.

The higher minimum wage is the first step toward fixing that. It should be a no-brainer -- as profits flow to CEOs and others in the 1 Percent, it's the rank-and-file American taxpayer who pays for their greed by footing the bill for the food stamps their underpaid workers need just to get by. And a living wage -- and a reduction in income inequality -- will grow the U.S. economy over time. But we need to the first step -- seeing America's invisible people, and realizing that helping millions of them has to be a feature of our politics, not a bug. In 2014, it's disgraceful that anyone would still need to carry a sign -- as striking fast-food workers did recently -- that says simply, "I Am a Man," or "I Am a Woman."