To a bit of fanfare last week, the newly installed Democratic leadership in Congress completed its "100 Hour" agenda, repealing billions of dollars in oil company subsidies as the coup de grace.
They completed their ideological blitzkrieg in just 42 hours (by their count; 87 by the Associated Press' watch), approving legislation to increase the minimum wage, lower student loan rates, expand stem cell research and adopt the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission and more.
It remains to be seen how many of the six bills will become law (or survive threatened presidential vetoes), but for one advocacy group, this much is already crystal clear: The Democrats' 100 Hour agenda doesn't do enough to close the economic gap that is widening in this nation. And it doesn't substantively help African Americans and Latinos, who suffer disproportionately from poverty and economic inequality.
"It's great that the new leadership in Congress is bringing renewed focus to lifting more people out of poverty, but they will have to do much more to close the racial economic divide that still exists almost 40 years after the Civil Rights movement," Meizhu Lui, co-author of the study and executive director of United for a Fair Economy, said in a written release. "African Americans, the Democrats' most loyal supporters, should expect more in hour 101 and beyond."
The UFE report is titled "The State of the Dream," and it argues that while some of the Democratic proposals will benefit the poor, the overall agenda does very little to erase longstanding inequities in our society.
The minimum wage legislation, the report claims, is a prime case in point.
The House Democrats spearheaded an increase in the $5.15 minimum wage by 70 cents an hour three times over the next three years, taking it to $7.25 an hour. Blacks and Latinos would receive the lion's share of this benefit; so why is the UFE critical of it?
"Although it is encouraging to see that Blacks and Latinos disproportionately benefit from the minimum wage increases ... contained in the 100-hour plan, it is discouraging to learn the reason why," the UFE report concludes. "Our analysis shows that it is only because they are disproportionately over-represented among those working at or below poverty level."
And "higher unemployment rates and the loss of union jobs [would] undercut the gains from raising the minimum wage," the report says.
A minimum-wage worker supporting a family with three other members would not rise above the federal poverty level, on average, until 2013 — if that same increase were given every year until then. That statistic in Florida is even worse, according to the study, which used the Sunshine State as its example of how 100 Hours' minimum wage changes would impact the minority communities. Factoring in the cost of living and an annual wage increase of 70 cents (and assuming no inflation, which the researchers acknowledge is a long shot), a family trying to live on the minimum wage wouldn't meet its cost of living until 2025 in Tampa Bay. Miami is worse; its minimum-wage residents wouldn't meet their living needs until 2027.
Despite those criticisms, Florida minimum wage advocates applaud the Democrats' 100 Hours legislation.
"It won't totally take care of the poverty issues, but it will help," said Jamie Ewing, a neighborhood chairperson and co-chair on the citywide board for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. ACORN led the effort to have voters in 2004 increase the minimum wage, which now stands at $6.67 in Florida.
Ewing acknowledged that Florida families can't live on the minimum wage in Florida, but she said the federal increase is long overdue and not just for minorities. "I think it will help everybody overall," Ewing said. "It's not just blacks and Latinos who are living below poverty level. What we want to do is get the word out to everyone. There are so many who are out there who aren't even aware the minimum wage has been raised."
UFE communications director Bob Keener said his organization understands that addressing core racial inequities is going to take longer than 100 hours.
"We're really trying to bring the race issue into focus for the public and for policymakers," he said in a telephone interview. "We really haven't had an opportunity to do that for eight to 10 years."