Take a look at your bills, starting with essentials: What do you pay for food, housing, clothing, health care, utilities and transportation? How much would it take for your family just to get by? Could you make it on $15,000 a year? $21,000? What would your family have to do without to make ends meet? What exactly does it take to make it in America?
These numbers tell stories of economic injustice, as well as the means of remedying those ills. The working poor are not fundamentally different – nor do they practice some kind of magical math that allows them to support their families on wages that would sink your own family. If you believe in the power of numbers to tell a true story – and that acting on these equations can help create a better future for all of us – then read on.
On Jan. 28, President Obama ignited a long-standing debate amongst political parties with his State of the Union call to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour. The controversy that followed was as predictable as it was irrelevant to those with the most at stake: the low-wage working poor. Pundits and commentators fell into two camps: Is raising the wage floor good for the economy or bad for the economy?
As usual, the voices of those most affected have been glaringly absent. Also missing is any discussion of the bread-and-butter question: What is it actually like to live on $7.25 an hour, or $9 an hour for that matter? Does either of these numbers constitute what working families both need and deserve: not a minimum wage but a living wage?
Although the terms “minimum wage” and “living wage” are sometimes used interchangeably, their meaning is quite different. A minimum wage is the lowest amount a business can legally get away with paying its workers. A living wage is what those workers need to meet their families’ basic needs – to stave off the choice between a gallon of gas and a gallon of milk.
Right now, a full-time worker at the federal minimum wage makes $14,500 a year, placing him or her below the federal poverty line if that worker is supporting a family of two or more. A $9-an-hour minimum wage would push that annual income up to $21,000. Sounds like a decent raise, right? If you look at that “raise” in inflation-adjusted dollars, however, it leaves today’s minimum wage worker making significantly less than he did in 1968, at the height of the War on Poverty. Still feel like progress?
Low-wage workers, despite what the “fuzzy math” of the minimum wage debate implies, cannot spin paychecks of straw into middle-class gold. The working poor do what they must to get by, whether that means living in substandard housing or making do with low-cost, low-nutrition food, but their bottom-line needs are no different from any other family’s, nor are their hopes and dreams for their children.
Pres. Obama’s savviest move may have been his call for communities to act on their own, by passing living wage ordinances at the local and state levels. In Washington state, for example, legislators have introduced a measure to raise the state’s minimum wage from $9.32 an hour – the highest state minimum wage in the country – to $12 an hour by Jan. 1, 2017.
This issue — work that pays enough to allow families to provide day-to-day for their children and build hope for their futures — is a key priority for Marguerite Casey Foundation. So when we found out that the general manager of the hotel we had booked months in advance for a staff retreat, helped lead the campaign against a $15-an-hour minimum wage increase in SEATAC, we were taken aback. It was too late for us to cancel our reservation and move to another hotel. We opted to do what we had each day since the Foundation’s inception. We would wear our values on our sleeves — in this case literally.
The morning of the retreat, 25 staff members arrived at the hotel, all wearing bright-orange T-shirts with the slogan, WE SUPPORT A LIVING WAGE. By noon, the hotel’s general manager had sought us out. We welcomed the opportunity to share with him our view that no family should live in poverty and to listen to his perspective.
“We care,” the general manager told us, “but this [the living wage ordinance] is going to put us out of business. A month before our retreat the hotel’s management announced plans for a $16 million expansion.
But the general manager had not approached us to debate the fine points of a living wage. His concern at that moment was narrower. “Are there more of you?” he asked repeatedly.
“You have to understand,” he added, glancing anxiously over his shoulder as if to gauge our collective impact on those passing through the bustling lobby, “the customers are starting to ask questions.”
In the short term, it was easy enough to reassure him. No, there were no busloads of orange-clad protesters heading for the hotel, no demonstrations or bullhorns to scare away his customers.
But the truer answer, we believe, is Yes, there are more of us – families across America who believe – against all evidence – in the promise of the American Dream: Work hard, and you can get farther than just the next month’s struggle to keep your head above water. Work hard enough and you will be able to give your kids a better chance in life.
How could we explain to him that this was all we wanted – for those who slept in the beds and ate the food made by minimum wage workers to question the policies and priorities that leave many of those workers struggling to feed and house their own families? And for businesses like his to recognize that it takes a workforce to grow a profit line. No matter how good the product, a business is only as good as the people it employs. Don’t they deserve more than the minimum wage?
Here in Washington state, more than half a million workers would benefit from a minimum wage hike to $12 an hour, according to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center. Needless to say, the proposed living wage of $15 an hour, something the city of Seattle is considering, would benefit many more.
A recent article by Jodie Levin-Epstein, in Spotlight on Poverty, “2014 Poverty Polling Pulling Purple,” reported that a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll found that nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64 percent) and more than 9 out of 10 Democrats (94 percent believe government should take action to reduce poverty; and that a majority of both Republicans (53 percent) and Democrats (90 percent), support raising the minimum wage to $10.10.
If 25 of us wearing T-shirts stating our support for a living wage rattled the administration of a large hotel, what might the 46 million people living in poverty in this country achieve working together to achieve? Or even 4,000 people, in an organized base unified under a shared vision?
Perhaps they could move the country in the direction where most Americans stand.
Luz Vega-Marquis is president and chief executive officer of Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News. Her blog posts are featured on the Marguerite Casey Foundation website and in The Huffington Post.