One hand giving, one hand receiving

Increasing wage disparity threatens to tear a hole in our social fabric. Several states are looking for ways to mend it.

The growing gap between the wealthiest in our society and everyone else is all in the numbers. The ratio of what the average CEO is paid, compared to the average worker, leapt incredibly from 30-1 in 2003 to 431-1 in 2004, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. Where has our society derailed in terms of wage equity and what can be done about it?

In Washington state, lawmakers are trying to bring some kind of oversight to CEO salaries and compensation packages, says State Representative Steven Conway (D-Tacoma), of the state Commerce and Labor Committee.

Creating a special tax for the wealthy and using the money to pay for educational opportunities for the poor is also under consideration. "We don't have income tax in Washington," Conway says. "Our Constitution prohibits it."

Washington is already ahead of many other states in terms of their minimum wage—$7.93 an hour. But raising the minimum wage is not the solution, Conway notes, "It only raises the bottom rung of the ladder."

Instead, he and other Washington legislators propose adopting a living wage ordinance. "We would analyze what it costs in a particular part of the state to buy a home, car, utilities, and what wage level you need to be at [to afford everything.]"

Also under consideration is a bill that would require state contractors to pay workers a family wage.

But neither proposal will address the imbalance in power between management and workers: the decline in unionism in America.

"Unions ensured that workers had a right at the bargaining table," Conway says. "As we see an erosion of collective bargaining—especially in the private sector—we see a corresponding wage slippage."

Better accountability would help reduce the widening gap between the rich and poor, says Maryland State Senator Verna Jones. "Everyone should have access to health care and a decent wage above the poverty level," she says. "The government should take the lead on this."

Maryland also has a proposed living wage bill: Business owners who receive more than $100,000 from the state would be required to pay workers a living wage of $11.50.

Jones has proposed an economic development incentives bill that would require the state government to track whether businesses receiving government subsidies fulfill their promises to provide decent-paying jobs. "This will help make people more accountable," Jones says. Currently, there is no systematic way of tracking whether these companies are fulfilling their commitment to produce quality jobs.

In Wyoming, a statewide leadership program, which included lawmakers, physicians and business leaders, last year produced a recommendation paper on wage disparity between men and women. Wyoming ranks last in the nation in terms of gender wage disparity, with women earning 67 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to the report.

The leadership program surveyed 100 organizations involved with workforce and economic development to identify challenges in closing the wage gap. A lack of affordable daycare was identified as the second biggest problem. (The top reason for gender inequity was that the highest paying jobs, such as coal mining, are male dominated.)

"Access to affordable child care is huge," said Suzey Delger, a nursing coordinator for the Natrona CountySchool District and one of the authors of the paper. "Many women are the main breadwinners and caretakers of their children. If you can't find affordable day care, you may have to take one or two lower paying jobs, or you may end up unemployed."