Ben Krimmel: On local issues, students are blissfully ignorant

There’s more to being the “most politically active” student body than getting a flashy Capitol Hill internship and watching “The West Wing” on Netflix.

A D.C. Council bill that would have raised the minimum wage for employees at large retail stores – specifically Wal-Mart – went down in flames last week. This was a chance for students and D.C. residents to make a difference.

But where were they to help?

Generally speaking, students here focus far more on what’s happening on Capitol Hill than in D.C. City Hall – they’re all about the flash, and not about the substance, of District politics.

This minimum wage bill, officially named the Large Retailer Accountability Act, would have made significant improvements to the lives of low-income D.C. residents. It would have raised the mandatory minimum wage from the District’s current $8.25 an hour to a “living wage” of $12.50.

And on Thursday, Gray – a 1964 GW graduate – vetoed it.

Some GW students did show they cared. For example, the GW Progressive Student Union protested in front of Gray’s office. Their worthy efforts, however, were in vain.

Evidently, Gray was too afraid of being labeled a “job killer” by Wal-Mart, which threatened to cancel its plan to build three stores in the District if the bill passed.

The only problem with the mayor’s concerns is that no job worth a damn will be brought to the District by Wal-Mart. At $8.25 an hour, Wal-Mart workers would take in $17,000 annually. That’s $6,000 below the poverty threshold for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Such a small sum can barely cover rent, utilities and food, let alone pay the costs associated with having a family. Gray shouldn’t help a multi-billion dollar corporation increase profits if its workers can’t make ends meet without government assistance.

We are living in an age where there is a consistent disregard for those at the bottom of our society. We’ve all heard the rhetoric before, but it’s true: These people are attacked and stigmatized. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent of earners took in over 50 percent of the income in the U.S. last year, according to a study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty.

People like Wal-Mart employees, making less than $9 an hour, can’t get a politician’s ear during one of those $500-a-plate fundraisers. They’re working at them.

And evidently, they can’t get our attention either. With the exception of students involved in the Progressive Student Union and the GW Roosevelt Institute on this particular issue, political science majors are more interested in interning for their local member of Congress – jobs that often involve little more than clerical work.

It’s time more students get involved in local issues that affect the livelihoods of GW’s neighbors. Taking a more aggressive stance on issues that matter in the District shouldn’t be too difficult for students here because so many options already exist.

D.C. Jobs with Justice, for example, is an organization leading the charge against Wal-Mart. And another group, called Respect D.C., lobbies for higher wages for retail workers.

Advocacy groups like these can always benefit from new members. The infrastructure is already there – all students have to do is allocate some time in their busy lives to make a difference.

What are you doing in your spare time that serves a worthier cause than this?

But the first step requires our awareness of the issues faced by District residents. And as it stands, most students are blissfully ignorant.

The writer, a senior majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet columnist.

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