Corporations don't need safety nets, people do

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It’s the least we can do.” I appreciate the honesty, but why tell me you could have done more? What was the more generous option you rejected? That’s what I want to know when I hear those words.

The holiday season is chock-a-block with transactional conundrums. We calculate the need to give so-and-so a gift and how substantial that gift should be. Some view a gift as one side of a transaction — an exchange that should feel balanced. Others give with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

Right now we are watching some grand scale transactional gift exchanges take place. The owners of the Atlanta Braves baseball team received a gift of a few hundred million dollars from the citizens of Cobb County in exchange for some blue sky promises.

Boeing made it easy on us — no need to guess what they want — just low taxes, big incentives and employees who happily accept the pay and benefits offered. Boeing is looking for the community that will give them the most generous gift.

Other corporations are less transparent about the gifts they expect. But they are happy to have taxpayers give their employees food and housing assistance, transportation, medical care and supplemental income via the earned income tax credit. There’s no pretense of an exchange on this one; this gift from taxpayers will boost corporate profits and earnings. A thank-you note would be nice, but isn’t expected.

When profitable corporations and men of ample means want assistance from local and state governments, well, by jingo, our elected officials will pull out all the stops to finagle a new stadium or build infrastructure to ease the burdens a profitable corporation has to bear.

No matter that there is ample evidence that the financial return to those communities is negligible. Sometimes the economic development projections are realistic. Most of the time they are based on elaborate spreadsheets full of optimistic assumptions.

The “least-we-can-do” approach to government appears when the community wants to restore music and art programs in the schools (instead of turning school children into door-to-door salesmen) or improve the funding for mental health programs or local infrastructure maintenance.

And sometimes we don’t even employ the pretense of “the least we can do,” especially when it comes to those of us with the least. Low wage workers who supplement their incomes with food stamps and the long-term unemployed in Illinois and Detroit will soon be competing for jobs with state and municipal retirees. The retirees trusted their pension contributions to irresponsible government officials and are now wondering how to pay their bills and are looking for work.

For these people there is no task force rushing around to relieve them of an unfair burden. What a different world it would be if we put the same creative energy into helping “the least of these” as we do helping the most powerful players in our economy.

What is the “least we can do” for those at the bottom of our economy?

First, don’t assume the worst about them. The recession pulled the rug out from under many people who had been steadily employed for a few decades. They are deemed too expensive to hire or old to learn. Whatever the reason given, they aren’t getting hired. These are bad days to be over 50 and unemployed. Give them a chance to show you what they can do as a temporary hire.

People who lost a job, couldn’t keep up with their bills and now have a poor credit rating can find themselves rejected not for a lack of skills or experience but for their lack of money. Take the time to find out if they had a good credit score before their job loss.

And military veterans who can’t explain how their skills could transition into the private sector, or who are struggling to fit into civilian society again are seen as risky hires. But there’s good evidence that most have good skills and work habits. And being employed — with a purpose for each day — can be the cure for much that troubles them. Wearing a yellow ribbon is nice; giving a vet an opportunity with a new job is even better.

Second, don’t weaken a tattered safety net. Cutting the food stamp program will not put people back to work or keep kids in school. Ending unemployment benefits when we still have three or four applicants for every job opening will not increase their determination to get a job and a paycheck.

Third, follow the money. Don’t assume that the only option fast food and retail businesses have to pay better wages is to raise prices. Shifting dollars from their massive advertising budgets wouldn’t put a dent in sales. Re-evaluating spending priorities and raising prices by 1 percent would probably allow the service workers to be paid a real living wage.

The “least you can do” for the least among us? At least listen. The powerless have a hard time being heard over the demands of the powerful.

Virginia Detweiler, based in Walla Walla, provides human resource services and management training to businesses in southeastern Washington with her firm HR Partner on Call. Her columns are written as a service to employers and employees and rely on reader questions and comments for topical material. Contact her by email at hrpartneroncall@gmail.com or phone at 509-529-1910. Because of job and employer sensitivities, care is taken to protect identities.

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