A society in which large numbers of people who work a full-time job cannot earn a “living wage” (i.e., provide themselves and their families with life’s basic necessities without governmental or charitable aid) is a “devolving” society. Hyperbolic? I don’t think so.
Devolution is degeneration that is often characterized by the splitting apart of a whole into lesser piece parts. For example. we might speak of the once great Roman Empire devolving into a group of fractious principalities or of a nation, like our own, devolving into a state of bitter infighting in which no one can ever seem to agree on anything or act in concert. Scanning the current political landscape for rifts, intractable chasms of disagreement and situations in which what is good for one group is characterized as life threatening to another the signs of national devolution are everywhere. Nothing hyperbolic in that, although caught as we are in a period of devolution, I am sure there are many who will want to violently disagree.
Social divisions do not necessarily have to end in devolution. Differences and divisions per se are not the culprits. Difference, division and debate are essential for the growth and development of individuals, communities, nations and humankind globally. Rather, it is the degree and character of these differences/divisions that lead either to positive or negative outcomes.
In this essay, I want to point to two areas that can easily lead to social devolution:
- Intellectual/Ideological Absolutism, and
- Economic/Opportunity Disparity.
Intellectual/Ideological absolutism is the idea that one’s own view or set of ideas is absolutely correct and that any other view is absolutely wrong. Absolutism tends to put a damper on meaningful debate because both parties to the debate assume that the other has nothing to say that could possibly be correct. This lack of conversation may not matter much if the topic under consideration is itself insignificant. The parties simply agree to disagree and go on with their lives.
However, in those circumstance when one absolutist regards the other absolutist’s views not only as incorrect but life threatening or dangerous in some other way, the parties cannot and therefore do not agree to disagree but engage in combat that divides the parties further usually reifying the absolutist positions. Where the power is more or less equal this situation leads to a stalemate at best and out- and-out warfare at worst. Actually, it really only takes one absolutist to tango in the sense that only one party needs to be completely closed to the possibility there being anything of merit in the other’s view for the situation to degenerate into one in which the absolutist and non-absolutist absolutely cannot deal with one another. Devolution, in one form or another, is sure to follow and grow.
Growth in economic/opportunity disparity is a kind of devolution in action. For example, the lives of those who currently need to work 80-100 hours in a week (have two full-time jobs) just to approach, not even obtain, a “living wage” are nothing like those of the wealthiest in society or even those who have modestly comfortable existences with well paying jobs. The more the gaps widen between various income groups and the more the percentage distribution of wealth in a country is skewed to a wealthy minority the more divided or devolved the society becomes.
The inability to earn a “living wage” in a normal or extra-normal work week is a key driving factor for societal devolution. Two-parent and single-parent families where the parents have to be out of the home working just to earn enough to eat suffer–often in a way that leads to the devolution of the family itself as a social unit. Malnutrition, neglect and consequent lawlessness etc.result from the renting of the social fabric in this way. Better off people begin to look down on the poor and assail their character rather than address the social conditions which have had such disastrous effects. Devolution deepens and social fragmentation accelerates. I have even heard some of my conservative colleagues says things like this of the poor, “I am no longer willing to give a crap about anyone who chooses to be a tick on the back of our nation. I used to pity them now I despise them.”
For their part the wealthiest bemoan the disintegration of society while seeking to maximize return on investment even as that drive to maximize return ensures that the lowest wage earners will be denied the the level of wage that might help ensure a “living” rather than devolving society.
In his State of the Union Address, the President called for an increase in the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00/hr. Making that change would go some way toward minimizing the inequality gap in this country without dramatically impacting small business people. Any move toward closing the income disparity gap is a move toward stopping the current head long rush to social devolution that we are currently experiencing. $9.00/hr won’t fix the problem but it will go a long way to helping those most disadvantaged in our society.
Without most of the population being able to earn a “living wage” social devolution is an inevitability that this or any nation can ill afford if it wants to consider itself in any sense UNITED.
For a data-based and very sound analysis of the history of wages and the need for a minimum wage increase by Brian Lynch: Click here.