by Michael Powell for The New York Times

December 19, 2011

Let’s slip into our Louis Vuitton shoes and take a gilded stroll through Manhattan.

We begin downtown, where Goldman Sachs, that exemplar of 0.001 percent America, reaps a multimillion-dollar tax break for its office tower, a deal accompanied by a multimillion-dollar landscaping clause. (You expected Lloyd C. Blankfein to yank weeds, maybe?)

In Midtown, we can draw money from an A.T.M. in the richly subsidized Bank of America tower, and skip over to Ernst & Young, where public tax dollars have underwritten a smashing skyscraper.

Now off to Yankee Stadium, where parking, seats, grossly overpriced hot dogs and pitchers all owe a debt to hundreds of millions in tax subsidies.

Our tour complete, we loop back to City Hall, where with luck, we may hear our billionaire mayor declaim on a ruinous proposal that several thousand low-wage workers could receive a wage of $10 an hour if they labor in developments irrigated with city tax subsidies.

“I think,” Michael R. Bloomberg said a few weeks back, “that when the government tries to too much interfere with the marketplace, it doesn’t turn out well.”

There is an indefinable something about a so-called living wage bill that puts New York’s leaders at risk of breaking out in socialist hives. Advocates have amended, sanded down and liposuctioned their bill in hopes of pleasing the mayor and the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn.

But this bill strikes Deputy Mayor Robert K. Steel, a former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, as dire. This autumn, he noted that the bill would apply to the gift shop at the Museum of Modern Art. As MoMA retails a natural stones necklace at $775, the imagination strains a bit to imagine a $10-an-hour clerk shuttering the joint. The state minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

What’s perplexing, however, is that the city — this mayor even — has walked this path before.

In 1996, the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organizing group that has built thousands of homes across New York City, proposed that private firms contracting with the city pay food service workers, security guards, cleaners and temporary office workers a wage that ranged at the time from $7.25 to $12 an hour. “We started with a pretty simple idea: If you work full time, you shouldn’t be poor,” recalled Jonathan Lange, an organizer with Metro I.A.F., the local affiliate.

None of this amused Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who sometimes sounded like the Grandmaster Flash of overheated mayoral rhetoric. “They are trying to rebuild the Berlin Wall,” he roared. The Council overrode Mr. Giuliani’s veto, and he was characteristically intemperate. The groups that passed this bill, he growled, are sacred cows and “sacred cows make the best hamburger meat.”

In 2002, a union-led coalition sallied forth again. It wanted to extend these living wage provisions to home health care and child care workers whose agencies had contracts with the city. Curiously, as Douglas Turetsky of the city’s Independent Budget Office noted, Mayor Bloomberg signed on to this provision, which extended a living wage to 50,000 home health care workers and 9,000 child care workers. All told, perhaps 70,000 or more New Yorkers now benefit from living wage provisions.

(This movement has hopped the Atlantic. The Industrial Areas Foundation took its campaign to Conservative Party-controlled London. The coming Summer Olympics will be a Living Wage Olympics, with workers like ticket takers to halal shish-kebab vendors earning a wage of close to $13 an hour.)

As the mayor rumbles about threats to capitalism and Ms. Quinn tries to decide where she will alight on this bill, another truth goes unremarked upon. A living wage bill scarcely pulls a worker out of poverty, much less into working-class prosperity.

Margaret Passley, 50 and a Jamaican immigrant, has labored in home care for more than two decades. In 2002, she got a raise to $10 an hour: that is not to be confused with living well. She worked 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week to support her two children, and to try to hold onto a Brooklyn house she eventually lost to foreclosure.

What of your spare time? I ask. Can you take in a movie? She shakes her head. A restaurant? She chuckles.

“To be honest, I can’t afford that. I go to church,” she says. “For leisure time, I go to the park.”

This is a living wage with little room for life.

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