Growing our shrinking middle class


Today, Americans are working longer hours for less pay. Protections and benefits that were once guaranteed by the government or bargained for by unions have eroded. Workers are holding up their end of the bargain, but seeing little in return.

And new numbers illustrate the reality Ohio workers face. Oxfam and the Economic Policy Institute released a new report last week revealing the staggering number of workers in Ohio and across the country that are trying to support their families on low wages that don’t reflect the value of work they are putting in.

Nearly a third of the Ohio workforce — above the national average — earns less than $12 an hour. And nearly half of Ohio workers earn less than $15 an hour.

These aren’t teenagers working summer jobs for pizza money — the vast majority of these Ohio workers are over 25 and many are supporting families. There are 4.6 million Ohioans living in households that are supported by a worker making $15 an hour or less.

This isn’t how you build a strong middle class.

We used to have a social compact in this country that promised if you worked hard, played by the rules, and put in the hours, you could get ahead. You could make enough to put dinner on the table, take the kids to the movies, send your daughters to college, and save for retirement.

But over the past several decades, as you can see from these numbers, the value of work has eroded. Ohio workers aren’t looking for a handout — they’re just looking to be paid what they’re worth. We need to do more to ensure that their hard work is rewarded.

That means raising the national minimum wage to $15. It means guaranteeing paid sick leave and paid family leave. It means ensuring equal pay for equal work. It means ending workplace abuses that steal from workers’ paychecks by misclassifying them as “independent contractors,” or by forcing them to work off the clock.

And it means rewarding work through the tax code.

One of the best things we did in Congress last year was to pass my bill to permanently expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, or EITC — and we got it done as part of a bipartisan deal. The EITC is one of the most important tools we have. President Reagan called it “the best anti-poverty measure to come out of Congress.”

We need to build on our success with EITC, and expand it to cover all low-income workers.

We also took an important step last month. Vice President Biden, Labor Secretary Perez, and I flew to Columbus to announce a new overtime rule that will give millions of American workers a raise.

Right now, before the rule change takes effect, millions of American workers are classified as managers. But they are making just $30,000 or $40,000, and working 50 and 60 hour weeks, without getting paid a cent — let alone time-and-a-half — for their extra hours.

As the Vice President said in the announcement, “when the middle class does well, the rich do very, very well, and the poor have hope.”

A healthy economy invests in its workforce, and when hard work pays off, we get more productive workers, more successful businesses, and stronger families.

Sen. Sherrod Brown

For The Register-Herald

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