Opinion

Politicians Are Ineffective, So Working Americans Take Matters Into Their Own Hands

Over the past week, working Americans have heard more than enough about Hillary Clinton’s emails, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey’s overreach, and Donald Trump’s tax shenanigans and ties to Russia. What they didn’t hear is what is going to relieve them of the burden of our deeply broken economy. Nearly 41.7 million Americans earn less than $12 an hour – a paycheck that barely covers the basics from employers who take a “tough luck” approach to families caring for newborns or dealing with sickness. In four states, voters who are not finding hope at the top of the ballot are looking down the ballot – past the politicians – and finding the concrete solutions they are looking for in ballot initiatives that help their families and neighbors’ pay bills, care for the sick loved ones, and put food on the table.

Election after election, politicians promise to improve the lives of working Americans to win a seat in the Congress or local government. We’ve been patient. We’ve voted for “change.” We’ve pressed lawmakers to take action, and we’ve waited a long time for results. But time has shown that regardless of which party wins next week, our elected officials probably won’t or can’t fix the inequalities in our system.  Some won’t because they are married to the mythology of trickle-down economics or owned by big money, others can’t because they are paralyzed by entrenched partisanship.

People at both ends of the political spectrum are frustrated – as evidenced by the enthusiastic support for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Trump’s (very different) economic populism. But in this election, we’re seeing something special. In four states, voters don’t have to wait for politicians to live up to their promises or negotiate through gridlock, they can immediately make our economy fairer for their families and neighbors through ballot initiatives that raise the minimum wage and provide paid sick leave. On Nov. 8, more than 12 million voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington will have an opportunity to say yes to a raise for 2.1 million minimum wage workers that will begin to take affect almost immediately. And in two places earlier this year, workers didn’t even have to wait for the election because lawmakers increased the minimum wage in direct response to proposed ballot initiatives.

That’s real progress, immediate change.

There has been a lot of speculation about what the next White House or Congress will want and be able to do. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the many frustrated voters who aren’t waiting for new leadership in Washington, D.C. Through ballot initiatives, they have put issues on the ballot that could improve millions of lives by forcing politicians to act or even if no new legislation is considered.

One of those motivated voters is Riann, a 27-year-old medical assistant and single mom in Arizona. Riann literally can’t afford to take a sick day for herself because she’s working hour by hour to feed her kids. In addition to choosing the next president, on Election Day she will vote to change her kids’ lives. That’s why she’s supporting Proposition 206 to raise the Arizona minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and to ensure that everyone can earn paid time off to take care of themselves or a loved one when they get sick.

The same holds true for Colorado, another presidential battleground state. In that state, Colorado Families for a Fair Wage is turning out voters like April, who works 24- to 48-hour shifts, earning $8.31 an hour to support her family. Working full time on that wage can hardly pay the bills and doesn’t cover the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment. She’s excited about Amendment 70 that will provide her with the chance to earn a fairer wage.

The momentum created by regular citizens such as Riann and April will propel these proposals to victory. Recent polling shows more than 58 percent of Arizonans and 55 percent of Coloradans support these initiatives, and it’s possible the margin of victories for these measures will be larger than those of presidential candidates, showing support beyond the typical partisan divide. The energy on the ground in Arizona is probably a reason Clinton is turning her attention to the state – a traditionally red one – in the final weeks of her campaign where 91 percent of registered Latino voters are committed to voting in this election.

We don’t need to fix our broken political system before we can begin fixing our lopsided economy. In the past seven years, Congress has raised the minimum wage for a total of zero working Americans. In six days, voters will likely raise the wage for 2.1 million working Americans. Ballot initiatives send a very strong message to politicians: These issues cannot be ignored. The threat of ballot initiatives has already forced the hand of legislators in California and Washington D.C. earlier this year. California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, noting “what really cemented this deal was…quite frankly the specter of the [ballot] initiative.” And D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser credited the threat of the ballot initiative for inspiring “everybody to act urgently… [and for] making us all think clearly about what it means to not have good paying jobs in the District and be able to afford to live here.”

When combined with the other ballot measures in four states, more than 8 million workers will feel a difference in their wallets before the next-president is even inaugurated. That’s more than 10 percent of wage earners in the United States. In this unpredictable election, we’d love for our country to elect a President who fights day and night to reverse the economic inequality that has stacked the deck against working Americans. But even a president who fights for a $15 national minimum wage, insists that all workers receive paid family leave, and works to close the gender pay gap will run head on into a Congress that has mastered doing nothing much beyond renaming post offices.

That’s why until our politics is fixed we’ll invest in the direct democracy of ballot initiatives to deliver immediate impact for working Americans. These initiatives might appear at the bottom of the ballot, but they are the top when it comes to impacting the lives of working Americans.

Jonathan Schleifer is Executive Director of The Fairness Project, a national organization working to address economic fairness through ballot initiatives. This cycle, The Fairness Project is focused on raising the minimum wage from coast to coast. 

 

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