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ENDING POVERTY BY CREATING A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO A LIVING WAGE
Professor Bill Quigley
Loyola University New Orleans School of Law
JURIST Guest Columnist
徹ur nation, so richly endowed with natural resources and with a capable and industrious population, should be able to devise ways and means of insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women, a fair day痴 pay for a fair day痴 work.

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, May 24, 1937

David Duke was invited by my students to talk to my Law and Poverty class in the early 1990s about welfare, work and poverty. He spoke smoothly about welfare and the laziness of poor people. He easily fielded all student questions. Except one.

The answer to poverty, Duke said repeatedly, was for people to get a job.

釘ut in Louisiana, said one student, 鍍here are like two hundred thousand children on welfare - but there are several hundred thousand more children who receive free or reduced school lunches. That means that their parents are working and they are still poor. If you say the answer to poverty is work, what do you say to the hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana who are already working but are still poor?

For once, David Duke was silent. He had no answer. Finally, he recovered and launched into an attack on cheaters in the school lunch program.

Unfortunately, our country is in much the same situation as David Duke.

Historically, our first response to poverty has been to advise the poor to work. But if the poor are already working or cannot find a job, what is the next response? Usually, our response is also silence. That silence is what my book Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage (Temple University Press 2003) is all about.

A constitutional amendment to guarantee every person the right to a job at a living wage addresses our silence about the economic injustice of tens of millions of poor people in the richest country in world history. With this amendment, every single person who wants to work gets a job. And every worker earns a living wage - at least double the current minimum wage, higher for people with kids.

Around thirty million people in our country work and earn less than $8.50 an hour. Another ten to fifteen million people are looking for work or are working part-time and would like to be working full-time. These people cannot pay all their bills all the time. That is real poverty.

I continually raise two questions about work and poverty when I speak to groups. 泥o you believe that people who want to work should have the opportunity to do so? and 泥o you think that people who work full-time should earn enough to be able to support themselves and their families? Everyone answers yes. Despite different politics, different races, different ages and income levels, people agree that every person should have the chance to work if they want to, and those who work should earn enough to support themselves and their families.

But somewhere along the way we have lowered our expectations for economic justice in our nation. As a result there is a huge gap between what we believe should happen and what is happening.

Our constitution contains our national promises to each other. We promise to protect free speech. We promise to protect the right to vote. While we have not been able to fulfil these promises perfectly, over time we continue to make progress. As constitutional rights these promises stay on our agenda and we keep working on them. I think the American people are ready to talk about adding a constitutional right to a job at a living wage as a national promise to each other.

There is already a surprising amount of popular, historical, economic, political, and religious support for a right to a job and for a right to a living wage. There are dozens of energetic and successful local living wage campaigns. Polls show very high support for public job creation and living wages. Many thoughtful economists already support the idea of full employment and living wages. Churches are joining in the calls for living wages and real job opportunity for all.

Critics say that living wages and guaranteeing job opportunities would wreck the 吐ree market. But as any tax lawyer knows, most of those same people are furiously lobbying Congress and state legislatures to change laws to their advantage. The economic system was created by people, is maintained by people, and is constantly being modified by people. Modifying the laws to create job opportunities and living wages is no different a social policy than the $100 billion dollar a year home mortgage deduction which helps people purchase homes and supports the real estate, construction, and banking industries.

Cost is also an issue. But a fair discussion about cost has to start with the cost that the American people are now paying to subsidize people working at low-wage jobs and the unemployed. Through our government, our churches, and our families, we now provide assistance for food, healthcare, shelter, and childcare for people who could be self-supporting if given the opportunity. Most people think it is not in our common good that millions are either not working or working and not earning enough to live on. Economic justice for those who are not making ends meet cannot come unless those who are doing well are willing to share to help advance the common good.

It is difficult to amend the constitution and rightfully so. Our constitution has never before addressed issues of economic justice and the prospect worries some people. But I think a serious national discussion about amending our constitution to provide universal opportunity for jobs and living wages will advance our common good and can lay the groundwork for a permanent national commitment to basic economic justice for all.

Only then can we respond to the silence when confronted with the poverty of millions of our sisters and brothers and only then can we meet the challenge of FDR痴 call for a fair day痴 work at a fair day痴 wage.


Bill Quigley is a Janet Mary Riley Distinguished Professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law and the author of the recently-published book Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage (Temple University Press, 2003).

September 24, 2002

GUEST COLUMNIST

JURIST Guest Columnist Bill Quigley is Janet Mary Riley Distinguished Professor and Director of the Loyola Law Clinic & the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at the Loyola University New Orleans School of Law.

Prior to joining the Loyola law faculty in 1990, Professor Quigley was in private practice specializing in poverty and civil rights law after serving as a legal services attorney exclusively representing low income people. He has represented individuals and organizations in institutional challenges in all state and federal courts in the areas of voting rights, welfare, housing, prisons, capital punishment and public education. Professor Quigley writes on issues of clinical education, poverty law, and civil and economic rights, and teaches poverty law and clinic. He continues an active pro bono practice representing organizations such as public housing residents, public education parents, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., and the American Civil Liberties Union.