OPINION: Hey buddy I’m going to work, can you spare a dime?
Maybe you’ve seen him too. Or maybe there are others like him. But he was new to me. Riding north on the G Train, I watched a panhandler enter my subway car and announce that he lived in a shelter, was hungry, was on his way to work, and would very much appreciate any loose change that the other riders could spare.
Taking him at face value, I initially wondered why he figured that admitting to having a job would somehow prompt fellow commuters to cough up additional funds for him. Then my inner cynic kicked in, and I thought, “Well, that’s a new pitch—invent as part of his spiel that he’s employed, so as to garner some respect—that he’s a working stiff like everybody else.”
But then it occurred to me that he might actually be telling the truth, and that his appeal, like the appeal (specifics aside) of virtually all panhandlers, comes out of genuine need. If he did have a job that paid minimum wage, as most likely it would, and if he wasn’t full-time, it’s more than probable that he still couldn’t afford housing, food, clothes, medical care or even the most modest of amenities that make life negotiable — and that the humiliating necessity of begging would remain.
And finally, it hit me — even if he was lying — he was counting on his working class commuter audience to understand that, these days, “minimum wage” (on which, in fact, many of his fellow riders struggle to subsist) does not automatically equate with “living wage” in New York City.
Either way, this panhandler was speaking — if not the truth, then at least a truth — about the plight of New York’s working poor. Nor can there be any real confusion over whether Mayor de Blasio needs to expand the city’s mandatory living wage minimum (of $13.13/hr) to include a broader range of city-subsidized commercial employers. Nor over whether Gov. Cuomo should step up his legislative efforts in Albany to shift minimum wage determination to local control. Nor over whether the Federal minimum wage (now $7.25/hr) must go up.—
Steven Doloff is a Professor in the Dept. of Humanities at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
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