Thursday, April 7, 2011

Welfare Is Totes Okay for Businesses (Necessary, Even)

When I first read this article about how cutting government services, in this case cutting bus schedules, hurts both the poor and businesses, my initial reaction was, as a bus rider myself, "it never ends". There's no end to the abuse the poor endure, there's no end to the calls to reduce the services the poor rely upon, there's no end to the poverty itself.

Waiting for the bus this morning, something else about the article hit me.

Across Milwaukee County, workers want jobs, and businesses want workers. Eric Isbister is the chief executive of GenMet, a metal fabricator located one block north of Milwaukee county. He needs new employees -- the expansion of his business depends on it -- but he can't get them.

The nearest bus stop is more than two miles from his factory. He advertises in newspapers, and regularly interviews prospective employees, but he continually runs up against the same problem. Often, he said, he'll see an interviewee's friends or family waiting in a car outside, ready to give the person a ride home. When he sees that, he knows he won't be able to hire the worker.

Isbister said he'd hire a dozen new employees on the spot, if only he could.

"I would welcome them with open arms," he said. "And we can train. We're well known for being the place that trains. You don't have to be a metal fabricator, you don't have to be a welder. We can teach you.

"But you have to be able to drive."

My immediate reaction to that is, gee, it's funny how affecting one portion of society affects another. It took several days for me to realize something else.

But you have to be able to drive. That's an odd way of putting it, isn't it? Why would you need to be able to drive to be a metal fabricator or a welder? What Mr. Isbister means to say isn't that you need to be able to drive, it's that you have to be able to afford a car.

Where I live, bus riders are divided fairly evenly between three groups: people too young to drive, people too old to drive and people too poor to drive. Mr. Isbister isn't talking about the first two groups, he's talking about the third group, and all of those people are fully able to drive. I have a driver's license. I know how to drive a car. I just can't afford to own, maintain, repair and gas a car. That's expensive and I just don't get paid enough.

Neither, I would guess, do Mr. Isbister's employees. And that's the problem. Henry Ford was a racist asshat, but he did get one thing right: he paid his employees enough to afford the product they were producing. He was only doing that to create a demand for his product (can you imagine a time when you had to create a demand for cars?), but the point still stands.

In order for businesses to be able to pay low wages, they depend upon our tax dollars to provide services to their employees that their paychecks just won't cover. Low wages won't cover the cost of owning a car, so your tax dollars pay for public transportation to get employees to work. Low wages won't cover the cost of food, so your tax dollars pay for food stamps and WIC*. Low wages won't cover the cost of housing, so your tax dollars pay for housing assistance*. Low wage and part time jobs don't cover, or even offer, health insurance, so your tax dollars pay for health insurance for their children. And on and on and on.

Nobody says a word about this. They just rip away more and more assistance from the truly desperate and stand about in confusion as the economy crumbles. Welfare for businesses is never called such, but without it, they can't even exist. But, hey, boot straps and self made men and all that, right?

*Yes, contrary to GOP talking points, many people receiving such assistance are working.

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