Forget for a minute about Florida jumping on the weed legalization bandwagon and think about why we can’t seem to make progress on a more important cause: workers’ civil rights.
While I strongly support marijuana decriminalization legislation and appreciate its ballot referendum “sexiness,” it’s also time to see Florida voters bypass the politicians and win one for the working poor, like New Jersey voters did on Tuesday.
The most recently available statistics show Florida is in the grips of an ever-worsening income inequality crisis. Since the late 1990s, the poorest 20 percent of Floridians have seen their average income drop by over 7 percent. The richest 20 percent have seen their incomes rise over 13 percent.
And a newly released census study puts Florida in a pack of 13 states where poverty levels have increased and are now worse than previously thought. Indeed, even the working poor are getting poorer, and there are more and more of them.
Statistics like those put Florida near the top of the national list of states with the highest levels of income inequality. And we’re near the bottom in average household income, too. Even as the Great Recession waned, overall median income in Florida kept going down.
Yet Gov. Rick Scott and countless Republican incumbent legislators are claiming credit for an economic recovery. They point to state economic growth and unemployment decline that both outpace national averages.
What they won’t mention is how income inequality has grown along with the economy. They’ll say nothing about the bottom 20 percent of working families sinking steadily, while the middle class just treads water.
In fact, they’ll hope middle-class voters believe without worry that it’s mostly working poor folks really suffering from GOP budget balancing achieved by deep cuts to public and social services.
Scott and other Republican candidates in Florida’s 2014 mid-term elections will spend the next year cherry-picking statistics, claiming their “business friendly,” anti-tax, anti-regulatory policies have worked.
But they will never, ever give those statistics any credible context.
None other than Wells Fargo, not exactly a liberal think tank, released a context-rich study just months ago, reporting: “Unfortunately, gains … do not accrue evenly across the economy.” The report also reveals the GOP’s dirty little secret about declining unemployment: “While hiring has clearly picked up, the composition of job gains is heavily weighted toward lower-paying industries.”
But context-shmontext, there are elections to be won. So from Gov. Scott right down the line, Republicans will still take credit as “job creators.”
They’ll say nothing about how the vast majority of those jobs stink.
They’ll say nothing about how many are minimum-wage jobs in hotels and restaurants, where woefully under-regulated employers all too often offer only half-time or /part-time shifts with no benefits whatsoever, while engaging in various forms of wage theft.
They’ll say nothing about how they’ve fought to prohibit individual counties and municipalities from passing wage theft and sick-time ordinances that begin helping the working poor. Or if they do say anything, they’ll say they’re “standing up for small businesses.”
Too many Democratic candidates will join Republicans in failing to say that rather than helping our Florida economy, leaving a huge underclass of underpaid, unprotected workers to fend for themselves robs it of millions of stable consumers, and fans the flames of social unrest.
We The People will have to be the ones to say, “Enough!” We will have to fight for and pass ballot amendments like these:
— Raising the minimum wage to a living wage of at least $10 per hour
— Adopting a new statewide anti-wage-theft program based on the Miami model
— Mandating statewide employer-paid sick time
— Repealing Florida’s “right to work” law, which obstructs union organizing
These are not simply “workers’ rights” issues. These are civil rights issues. The time is long overdue for addressing them.