The 'Unsavory' Among Us

Could a Minimum Wage Increase Help the Hungry and Homeless?

Desperation: The minimum wage has dropped precipitously over the past few decades.
Getty Images
Desperation: The minimum wage has dropped precipitously over the past few decades.

By Leonard Fein

Published September 07, 2013, issue of September 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

My neighborhood association is disturbed by a recent and ongoing surge in the number of “unsavory” people who use the neighborhood’s plentiful benches for sleeping. It proposes installing bench railings every three feet, which would render stretching out for sleep impossible.

In 1968, the federally established minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. That works out to $10.74 in 2013 dollars, or $22,339 a year.

In 2009, the federal minimum wage was raised again. It is now $7.25 an hour — which works out to $15,080 a year, a drop-off from the 1968 minimum of an astonishing $7,259 a year. True, nineteen states as well as the District of Columbia have established a higher minimum, typically about $8.00 an hour. Only two states — Oregon at $8.95 and Washington at $9.19 — significantly exceed the federal minimum. But even these provide less income than the 1968 rate.

As might be expected, many of my neighborhood’s “unsavories” have no jobs, hence no income save what they can earn as panhandlers, of which the neighborhood has many. (My favorite is a man whose sign includes “We accept Visa and Mastercard.”) And, so the Association chairman makes abundantly clear, there are real problems associated with the people he describes as unsavory. Evidently, they are guilty of publicly drinking, being intoxicated, urinating in public, acting belligerently, accosting people and trespassing on private property. I confess that I have encountered some (though not much) of all this, easily attributable to an urban environment very near Boston’s central bus terminal.

There’s an ongoing Facebook debate on what to do. Some people propose getting rid of the benches altogether, but as our public-spirited chair reminds us, “unsavory characters are congregating in other locations in the neighborhood without benches, so we know that the benches themselves are not causing the problem.” He advocates, instead, more police attention to the relevant locations as well as steps to improve their physical appearance. If, he says, “we can get some of these things accomplished in the next few months, cold weather will buy us a few more months of relative peace to work on bigger picture items.”

All, as I have learned to expect from our chair, thoughtful. But guess what’s missing, missing entirely? What’s missing is any attention, any at all, to the “unsavory” people themselves. Are they alcoholics or drug users? Are they stymied by mental health problems? How much of their problem derives from their poverty? Who are they, and why? What, if anything, can be done not only about them but also for them? (I recall one presentation, a year or so ago, by a police officer tasked with helping solve the problem, whose “best” idea was to collect the unsavories and drive them to nearby Somerville, dropping them there.) Can it be that our only concern is how to rid the area of the unsavories?

These are very big and very hard questions. It is tempting to throw up our hands in despair. Who are we to address a problem of this magnitude, let alone to solve it? We read of the homeless and hungry, we empathize with them (albeit from a considerable distance), but the problem is far too vast and the solution far too complex for us to do more than cluck our tongues.

I am haunted by the words of Albert Camus, referring to those “who have been stricken from the rolls of humanity.”

The minimum wage, as it is, is very far from a living wage. It consigns those who must make do with it to a rung on the ladder above which three or more rungs are missing. Moving up is well nigh impossible. There is a reason why on indexes of upward mobility, the United States scores below the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark — just as we score higher, much higher, on indexes of economic inequality. Raising the minimum wage would be a blessing — but a very modest blessing. No raise that is at all realistic would be sufficient to change the frozenness of our wage structure.

We read, in the powerful U’Netaneh Tokef prayer, that “utshuvah utfilah utzdakah” — repentance and prayer and righteousness — can “transform the evil decree.” I do not know that that is so, but neither do I know it is not so. On balance, it seems to me a good place to begin.

Contact Leonard Fein at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.