Labor Day Prompts Call for Vital Middle Class

By Ken Humberston

Governor Kate Brown’s recently released Housing Policy Agenda is a welcome tool in the fight for affordable housing in Clackamas County. Her focus on housing stability for children, veterans, and the chronically homeless, and increased housing supply for urban and rural communities should be welcomed in Molalla as well as Milwaukie.

This type of comprehensive approach, if funded and supported by all, will go a long way to mitigate the housing crisis currently endangering too many of our Clackamas citizens.

But as history has demonstrated, this approach, as needed as it is, will not solve the housing crisis. The economy that brought us out of the worst economic recession of our time in 1929 until the mid-1970s was built on creating demand for our products by making sure workers could afford to buy what they made. Our current economy is based upon paying labor as little as possible — the poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, child poverty, food insecurity, and property crime are the predictable results.

To achieve a lasting solution to our housing crisis requires us to close the wage-housing gap. Unfortunately too few of our elected officials are willing to have this discussion. Such a discussion would eventually focus public policy on how to raise incomes not just for those at the minimum wage but for those in the middle class as well.

As previous articles on this site have shown, we cannot have effective and well funded government at either the county or state level if wages continue to lag productivity and corporate earnings.

As long as the richest one percent in our economy garnish more than 20 percent of the wealth our workers create, more money will flow out of Clackamas County. Small businesses will be at a competitive disadvantage to the global retailers, and workers around the world will be exploited to provide our consumers with cheap goods because we can no longer afford to purchase durable and sustainable consumer products manufactured here in the U.S.

The challenge this Labor Day week: How do we raise wages overall? How do we promote local small businesses and create an atmosphere where they and their workers not merely survive but thrive?

There are many ways forward. By raising the minimum wage, we have created more income for small businesses in the county. But to get the full effect of this, we need wage levels that propel families into the middle class. On the national level, we need to rebalance our labor laws to give the 60 percent of workers who wish to be represented by a union a fair chance to make that happen.

At the state level, we need to elect enough state senators and representatives committed to sending clear messages to all Oregon employers that part of the social benefit calculation will be how much they pay their workers, the quality of a pension and health insurance they provide, as well as what actions they take to reduce their carbon pollution.

On the county level, we need to focus on our natural competitive advantage. This includes developing the next generation of wood products that sequester carbon, reduce carbon transportation pollution, and create local family wage /unionized jobs. We are among few counties taking the lead on cross laminated timber products. But we can’t stop there.

We need to explore how we can partner with the private sector to create family wage jobs. We need to lead by example. This includes exploring our zoning in the urban areas to reduce commutes. In the rural areas it includes finding ways to support job development including, if necessary, direct spending by the county.

Currently Clackamas County spends millions of dollars every year to provide the services our citizens demand. For the most part we take a business approach by buying from the lowest cost provider. But if that provider takes the money immediately out of the county then we’re “penny wise and pound foolish.” If we paid a penny more for a pencil manufactured in Clackamas County rather than in China, the employment gains could well outweigh the the upfront costs.

We don’t think like that, and maybe it is time we do.

So this Labor Day week, let’s not just talk about the importance of work, let’s begin to take action. Let’s explore every option we have as a state, a county, and all of our municipalities and special districts to rethink what is in all of our long-term best interests, not each of our own short term costs.

Ken Humberston is a Clackamas County Commissioner.

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