April 22, 1999
University Gazette


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Panel Addresses the Wage Gap

Social-change experts offer ideas for action

By Alvin Powell
Contributing Writer

Professor Robert Reich of Brandeis University (above) and William Julius Wilson (below), Geyser Professor at Harvard, speak about low wages at a panel at the Kennedy School of Government. Photos by Marc Halevi.

A federal budget surplus and prosperous times have created an opportunity to train and educate low-wage workers and address the wage gap between the working poor and the rest of the work force, panelists at a Kennedy School of Government Institute of Politics Forum said Monday, April 19.

Each of the three panelists issued his or her own call for action, ranging from a broad-based coalition to force Congress to act on social issues to state programs for struggling Massachusetts families.

Whether local or national, the panelists agreed there is not just the opportunity but the need for action now.

"Because we don't have the basic family and social supports, families are struggling," said Geyser University Professor William Julius Wilson. "I think now is the time for progressives to begin organizing."

In addition to Wilson, the panel included former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who is now university professor and Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University's Heller Graduate School, and Sister Margaret Leonard, executive director of Project Hope in Boston's Dorchester section. Julie Wilson, director of the Kennedy School's Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, moderated the event.

Wilson provided the backdrop for the discussion, describing a labor market that over the past few decades has left low-skilled workers further and further behind. Wilson said the increasing demand for computer skills, the flow of low-skilled jobs overseas, and the decline of union membership have combined to "twist" the U.S. labor market against low-skilled workers.

Though low unemployment has prompted recent wage increases for this group, those gains will likely prove temporary when the economy slows down, Wilson said.

"There is little reason to assume their long-term prospects are anything but bleak," Wilson said.

Wilson issued a strong call for a broad-based coalition to mount a political offensive to convince Congress that the time is now to take action on this issue.

Reich issued his own call to action with a seven-point plan to improve the lot of low-skilled workers.

The plan includes improved education and job training, better child and health care, public service jobs for those unable to find private sector work, improved public transportation, a minimum wage hike, an interest rate cut to heat up the economy, and reforms to make unionization easier for service-industry workers.

Reich said the programs are possible today because of federal budget surpluses "as far as the eye can see."

"We are not bereft of policy alternatives. There is no reason for denial and resignation," Reich said.

Drawing on her experience helping poor families, Leonard put a human face on the discussion. She described people who got up and went to work every day -- to jobs as bank tellers and security guards -- and who nonetheless became homeless.

These members of the working poor are the ones who tend to fall through the cracks, Leonard said, because their incomes are high enough to make them ineligible for many government programs yet too low for them to save enough to get through a crisis like a job loss.

Leonard described case after case where these families, after getting help from the right government program, went on to gain more education and secure better jobs.

The problem, she said, is there are not enough programs aimed at this group, which needs job training, education, child care, and health care. Leonard said there are several programs being advocated in the Massachusetts legislature by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, including tax cuts, that would begin to address the problems faced by this group.

The Forum was attended by about 200 people, including several members of the Harvard Living Wage Campaign, which is pushing Harvard to adopt a %10-an-hour minimum wage for its workers and those of its subcontractors. During the question and answer period, one student asked whether action should start close to home, rather than in Washington. Reich responded that some action at Harvard would be fine, but said the federal government affects so much of our lives that change at the federal level is crucial.

James Koshiba, a student at the Kennedy School, said after the Forum that he enjoyed the discussion's mix of policy, politics, and personal stories.

"Since we're in an era of prosperity, we should be making better social policy," Koshiba said. "I hope people heard that."

The program was sponsored by the Wiener Center, the Kennedy School, the Kennedy School's Social Policy PIC, the Harvard University Trade Union Program, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, and the Institute of Politics' Student Advisory Committee.


Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College