Working hard for the money

    Imagine you are supporting a family of four. You work 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, with no health benefits, no leeway for days off and absolutely no chance at higher earnings. At the end of an honest day’s work, you don’t get an honest day’s pay. Your neighbor, on the other hand, does not have a steady job and is on welfare; consequently, he or she gets more money from the state than you do from your job. Frustrated? I bet.

    That’s where the “”living wage”” comes in. Hundreds of thousands of employees across the nation still live in poverty, regardless of the fact that they have a full-time job. These are men and women who take our kids to school, drive our city buses, dispose of our trash and maintain our cities. These individuals work full time and yet manage to find themselves below the poverty line. Minimum wage doesn’t suffice in the growing economy, and many families — families with full-time workers — find themselves in poor living conditions. Like most people, I’ve always believed that if you work full time for a living, you should not have to live in poverty. We must support a “”living”” wage for a better standard of living for our community.

    The average income of a low income working family was a horrific 11 percent below the average in 1979. In 1997, the average income of such a family stood at $14,900 (adjusted for inflation). Currently, the income is $1,300 lower than that year’s poverty line for a family of two adults and two children.

    According to U.S. labor standards, the national minimum wage stands at $5.15 per hour. California’s minimum wage is above the national standard at $6.75 per hour. A “”living wage”” means giving an employee a wage that is higher than the two former standards, allowing them to live in that city or county and support a family above the poverty line (given that each city’s poverty line is different).

    Minimum wage advocates fail to see that the cost of living for an average person and family differ greatly from city to city and from state to state. Just because you are abiding by California minimum wage law does not mean you are offering an opportunity to live above the poverty line. Wage standards should fluctuate according to geographical considerations that take into account actual regional expenditures instead of conservative, national ballpark figures. Food, housing, transportation and child care costs range in different areas, and thus the minimum wage should be adjusted to recognize these discrepancies.

    Many of us have this image that poverty is what we see on weekend infomercials, where Golden Age celebrities encourage us to adopt a child in Southeast Asia or pledge our spare change to a needy family in Central America. However, what most of us don’t realize is that poverty co-exists with us in our very own communities. When an employment institution disregards an individual’s right to unionize, to possess insurance benefits and to have sick days, that institution essentially denies that individual’s right to basic human needs. The employer also dooms that person’s dependent family to poverty. This is why there is an urgent need to recognize a living wage — a wage that allows employers to provide for their employees and their family just above the poverty line, at the very least. Employers are not only responsible for the livelihood of their employees, but for the livelihood of the community as well.

    While many people believe that permitting a living wage will increase unemployment, company relocations, contracting fees and city budgets, studies conducted by the New Age Party in Baltimore and Los Angeles have proven something quite contrary to these claims. According to these studies, it was concluded that the establishment of a living wage ordinance caused no net increase in the city budget (the expenditure increase to the city after the living wage regulation was established was less than the average rate of inflation in Baltimore), no employment decrease, and no loss of city services. And while the option of relocation was still a widely considered solution, it was rarely acted upon. Furthermore, this same study concluded that implementing a living wage according to that city’s standard would ultimately save the state and local taxpayers about $33.3 million by reducing the need for food stamps and healthcare entitlements. And while lawmakers will definitely have to deal with typical employer non-compliance and take extra steps to make sure that a living wage ordinance will affect a larger amount of employees, these are definitely obstacles that can and should be overcome in light of the benefits that can be reaped.

    Eventually, living wage campaigns and ordinances will counteract the negative economic patterns that have been plaguing lower income workers, and our communities can finally see all their citizens live a more dignified lifestyle — an American lifestyle they are entitled to as honest and hard working components of one of the most productive economies in the world.

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