WASHINGTON – A quarter century ago, Kismet Evans was homeless and abusing drugs and alcohol. Today, thanks in part to a program that helped her get back on her feet, she is a home health care provider in Nevada and founder of an award-winning nonprofit organization serving homeless veterans.
She is also an advocate for low-wage workers – a message she shared on Capitol Hill Thursday.
“Every American deserves to be able to have security, safety, pay their bills on time, know what life is going to bring to them, instead of seeing nothing but darkness,” she said at a House Budget Committee hearing on income inequality.
“We are not asking for the world, just a portion, to call hope,” she wrote in her written testimony.
Evans’ representative in Congress, Democrat Steven Horsford, stressed that point.
“No American should be working more than 40 hours a week and still living near the poverty line,” he said. “Our economy works best when it supports all Americans, not just the top 1 percent.”
The issue, Horsford said, is critical in Nevada. The state has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the country, according to a 2018 report by the Economic Policy Institute.
The income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Nevadans in 2015 was 33 times higher than the bottom 99 percent, the report found. That put Nevada fourth on a list of states ranked by their degree of income inequality – just under New York, Connecticut and Florida.
The Silver State also has an extreme dearth of affordable housing – and came in dead last in a 2019 state-by-state ranking by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In Nevada, there are only 19 homes for every 100 extremely low-income renters – the worst in the country.
“These are the individuals who we are fighting for to make sure the programs we support … are preserved,” Horsford said at the hearing.
The rich get richer
Despite fears of a looming recession, the nation’s economy continues to expand – but not everyone is reaping the benefits of economic growth.
The richest 1 percent of Americans have seen their wealth grow by nearly 300 percent over the last three decades, but the poorest 50 percent have seen no growth, noted Rep. John Yarmuth, the Kentucky Democrat who chaired the hearing.
Such rising income inequality is “one of the most pressing economic and fiscal challenges” facing our country today, he said.
Higher wages for low-income workers is one solution, Evans said. “We deserve an increase not because we need more money but because we want to be a better citizen, a better mother, a better father,” she told lawmakers. “If we don’t, we are only going to continue to see more mayhem, more crime, more prostitution.”
In July, the U.S. House passed legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, but the GOP-controlled Senate is not expected to vote on the measure this Congress. Horsford and Democratic Reps. Susie Lee (3rd District) and Dina Titus (1st District) backed the bill but Republican Rep. Mark Amodei (2nd District) didn’t.
In Nevada, employers must pay workers a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour if they provide health benefits, and $8.25 if they don’t. That floor is set to rise to $12 over the next five years for employees who aren’t offered health benefits, under a new state minimum wage law. Nevada lawmakers also passed a resolution to let voters approve a state constitutional amendment before to eliminate the tiered wage by 2024. If the amendment is approved, the $12 minimum would apply to all workers.
Federal legislation, if enacted, would supersede the state-set minimum wage.
Republicans took issue with mere existence of the income inequality hearing – arguing that the committee should instead focus on what they said its name implies it should: pass budgets and address deficits.
They used their time to champion the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which they said has translated into bigger paychecks and fewer people in poverty. Raising the federal minimum wage and other Democratic proposals to narrow income inequality are ill-advised, they said.
“I’m concerned this hearing is focused on the wrong premise: that income inequality can only be solved by redistributing wealth,” said Rep. Phil Johnson, an Ohio Republican. He added, “The budget committee is supposed to be the committee of fiscal discipline.”
Ramesh Ponnuru, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who testified at the hearing, warned economic policies designed to confront income inequality would have unintended consequences, such as job loss and higher trade deficits.
But Democrats brushed off those concerns, pressing for raising the minimum wage and other proposals that would increase access to early childhood education, make college more affordable, support the nation’s aging infrastructure and create new jobs.
Horsford, meanwhile, cited the value of social “safety net” programs such as Social Security and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
And Heather Boushey, president and CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, called for legislation that would measure economic growth across the income spectrum, strengthen unions, provide workers with paid family leave, and more.
“We must do all of this and more,” Yarmuth said.