Ettinger: We Need to Address One of Our Country’s Biggest Issues

By Eve Ettinger

March 9, 2021

Dogwood columnist Eve Ettinger argues that we need to recognize a few things before any change happens.

Class solidarity (especially misperceived class solidarity) is one of the biggest hurdles keeping our country from achieving any semblance of equity and justice. 

Over the weekend, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) walked onto the floor of the Senate and voted no on a $15 federal minimum wage with a thumbs down and a little bounce from the knees. This gesture was seen as sassy, snarky, and disrespectful by many, who are disappointed that a senator who campaigned on fair wages and regularly discusses a childhood of housing insecurity and poverty would vote against something as seemingly straightforward as a $15/hr minimum wage.

This reminds me a lot of the moment a few weeks ago when Chrissy Teigan tweeted, asking followers “what’s the most expensive thing you’ve eaten that you thought sucked?” and following it up with a story of a “nice” red wine recommended to her and her husband John Legend at a restaurant, that turned out to be priced at $13,000 when they got the bill at the end of the night. 

People had begun responding to her initial tweet with enthusiasm, but the responses soured the instant she revealed her story–the price tag was appalling, the disconnect between what felt affordable to her and what felt affordable to her followers caused outrage. It was like, for a moment, everyone had forgotten that she is among the uber rich in the U.S., that she wasn’t just another middle class friend hanging on Twitter, and being reminded of her astronomically different economic circumstances made people enraged.

A Rampant Sense of Disconnect

While Sinema isn’t as wealthy as Teigan, to be sure, her quirky fashion sense, dazzling smile, and openness about her bisexuality had many on the left fooled into thinking that she would vote in solidarity with the working class millennial queers who stanned her historic election in Arizona. 

The truth is, even if she did grow up with a period of “homelessness” (which is in some dispute), she seems to have chosen the side of upper class interests. She did that with this vote, with her fashion accessory signaling (though, like AOC has often said, you can dress well off of deals), and with her general inability to see that there was anything wrong with her choice to kill the $15/hr minimum wage bill.

This moment is reflective of a larger issue at play in our political discourse, where there is a rampant sense of disconnect between those who are struggling to make rent and those who are making decisions about who deserves help right now during the pandemic. 

Doing the math, $15/hr at 40 hrs a week would net $2,400/month before taxes. With median rent for a one bedroom apartment sitting around $1,200 per month in the U.S. (2019 data), this puts our minimum wage worker in the position of spending half their monthly gross income on rent, an unsustainable situation at its most optimistic. 

This puts about 2.1% of Americans (per 2018 data) who are earning minimum wage in the impossible situation of being unable to live off of what has been marketed as a “living” wage since the Fight For $15 started back in 2012. Nearly a decade later, Sinema is just one among many who seem disconnected from what working Americans actually need to survive. 

Who Actually Needs Help?

We see this with the Rescue Act debate around means testing as well. The discussion boils down to who actually needs the $1400 promised the most–which is already significant ground lost from the promised $2,000 checks discussed in December. It predicates “need” on 2019 income reported on tax returns. 

This income cap, after voting ended in the Senate, was set at $75,000. That means that if you earned $75k in 2019, but were unemployed in 2020 and are still broke today, you won’t see that $1,400 check because you have the “means” to do without it by the Senate estimate. 

This is blatantly ridiculous, but how can you force someone to care about the interests of those struggling to pay rent when the push for a “livable” minimum wage has been unable to persuade lawmakers that people need fair wage protections since 2012?

Sinema, like Teigan, is not the enemy here. It’s not all her fault she sided with her class interests and is disconnected from the voters who need her help. It’s also the fault of those of us who deceive ourselves into thinking that people like Sinema and Teigan are relatable and align ourselves with the values of an aspirational class status rather than organizing with those in our actual same income bracket and demanding to be heard by our representatives. False solidarity with the ruling class will starve us all.

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