In Gilded City, Living Wage Proposal Still Stirs Fears

By Michael Powell
New York Times, Dec 19 2011
Let’s slip into our Louis Vuitton shoes and take a gilded stroll through Manhattan.

We begin downtown, where Goldman Sachs, that exemplar of 0.001 percent America, reaps a multimillion-dollar tax break for its office tower, a deal accompanied by a multimillion-dollar landscaping clause. (You expected Lloyd C. Blankfein to yank weeds, maybe?)

In Midtown, we can draw money from an A.T.M. in the richly subsidized Bank of America tower, and skip over to Ernst & Young, where public tax dollars have underwritten a smashing skyscraper.

Now off to Yankee Stadium, where parking, seats, grossly overpriced hot dogs and pitchers all owe a debt to hundreds of millions in tax subsidies.

Our tour complete, we loop back to City Hall, where with luck, we may hear our billionaire mayor declaim on a ruinous proposal that several thousand low-wage workers could receive a wage of $10 an hour if they labor in developments irrigated with city tax subsidies.

“I think,” Michael R. Bloomberg said a few weeks back, “that when the government tries to too much interfere with the marketplace, it doesn’t turn out well.”

There is an indefinable something about a so-called living wage bill that puts New York’s leaders at risk of breaking out in socialist hives. Advocates have amended, sanded down and liposuctioned their bill in hopes of pleasing the mayor and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn.

But this bill strikes Deputy Mayor Robert K. Steel, a former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, as dire. This autumn, he noted that the bill would apply to the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art. As MoMA retails a natural stones necklace at $775, the imagination strains a bit to imagine a $10-an-hour clerk shuttering the joint. The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

As the mayor rumbles about threats to capitalism and Ms. Quinn tries to decide where she will alight on this bill, another truth goes unremarked upon. A living wage bill scarcely pulls a worker out of poverty, much less into working-class prosperity.

Margaret Passley, 50 and a Jamaican immigrant, has labored in home care for more than two decades. In 2002, she got a raise to $10 an hour: that is not to be confused with living well. She worked 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week to support her two children, and to try to hold onto a Brooklyn house she eventually lost to foreclosure.

What of your spare time? I ask. Can you take in a movie? She shakes her head. A restaurant? She chuckles.

“To be honest, I can’t afford that. I go to church,” she says. “For leisure time, I go to the park.”

This is a living wage with little room for life.

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