PRESIDENT BUSH started out on the side of women, minorities, and the working poor earlier this year when he put forward a proposal to raise the minimum wage. Now, he is about to use his first veto to send a symbolic and practical message to all Americans that his administration stands with the powerful and privileged while turning a deaf ear to the weak and neglected.
A veto of the minimum-wage bill will hit women and minorities particularly hard. Two-thirds of all minimum wage workers are women. Black and Hispanic women are twice as likely as white men to be paid the minimum wage. For many, the President's decision will dictate whether they are able to provide food, shelter, and the other basic necessities of life for their families.
A minimum-wage veto also will exacerbate the plight of America's young families with children. The median income of such families plummeted by nearly 20 percent between 1979 and 1987, in part because the minimum wage lost ground to inflation each year during this period. Falling earnings among young men continue to undermine their ability to marry and support their children, contributing to a decline in the marriage rate and a rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate. For both these reasons, child poverty rates have increased dramatically, leaving more than one-third of all children in young families poor.
So why is the President preparing to veto the bill? He cites three principal objections - size of the increase, restrictions on a new ``training wage,'' and the alleged refusal of Congress to compromise. But none of them withstand scrutiny or justify making minimum wage workers wait any longer for a long overdue raise.
The President claims the wage increase is too high because the bill goes 30 cents per hour above his recommended level. But at $4.55 an hour in 1992, as Congress has proposed, the minimum wage still would be nearly 70 cents below the 1981 level adjusted for inflation and would leave a family of three with a parent who worked full-time, year-round at least $1,600 below the poverty level.
One would think we face a national calamity if the working poor were to receive the equivalent of a dime an hour more each year than the President has suggested. In fact, the amount at issue will make a difference only to those who now barely scrape by - and even $200 more each year ($600 extra by 1992) can put a lot of food on the table of low-income families.
The President claims his ``training wage'' proposal has been ignored. But the bill includes a ``training wage'' for the first two months that new employees are on the job if they have had little or no work experience. Firms that hire disadvantaged workers also can receive a large break through the federal Targeted Jobs Tax Credit to offset training costs.
The administration proposal does go beyond the ``training wage'' permitted in the minimum-wage bill, but in the process it would open huge new loopholes in minimum-wage laws. Even workers with 10 or 20 years of experience, could be paid a sub-minimum wage for up to six months. Most minimum-wage workers would remain trapped permanently in high-turnover positions at below-minimum pay.
The President claims Congress has refused to compromise. But the increase has been pared back 50 cents per hour - from the $5.05 level originally proposed in the House. By including a ``training wage,'' Congress also has met the President halfway, conceding on an issue that drew vigorous opposition from most advocates of a minimum-wage increase.
With so little merit to administration objections, the impending veto fight raises troubling questions about the Bush's sensitivity to the day-to-day struggles of low-wage workers - including women, minorities, and working poor families. Certainly the President's response to the plight of the predominantly white, male, and affluent Americans who reap capital gains has been quite different. President Bush seems to feel the burden of their financial struggles deeply, to the point that he has made tax reduction for capital gains a top priority.
But where is the President's sympathy for minimum-wage workers who work full time and still cannot support their children or who find less and less economic incentive to work?
Perhaps Bush plans to work his way down the economic ladder, first by increasing the incomes of those taxpayers who enjoy capital gains. Perhaps eventually he will reach women, minorities, and the working poor, tackling the minimum wage and other issues of basic economic survival. But I wouldn't count on it, and minimum-wage workers can't wait.