As our new legislative session fully uncoils, it’s good to recall that just a few weeks ago workers in 20 states saw an increase in the minimum wage. The federal minimum, $7.25, was last raised in 2009. Since then, 29 states and dozens of cities and counties have chosen to exceed the federal floor. A number have repeatedly raised their rates. The “Fight for $15” movement is posting a heartening mark.
Of course, neither North Carolina nor any of its municipalities is on the expanded list. Our General Assembly clings staunchly to the floor. It also makes it impossible for willing North Carolina cities to act on their own. So much for local prerogative. One guesses our lot would repeal the scant federal standard if they had the power.
It has been my honor to do a good deal of work with Charlotte’s Crisis Assistance Ministry in recent years. That has included months of interviews with their low-income clients — many of whom form a 200 or so person line beginning at 5 a.m. outside the Ministry’s office each weekday morning, hoping to stave off eviction and homelessness. All our interviewees were employed, most at more than one job, for more than 40 hours. They worked in various low-wage pursuits: home health care, retail, food services and the like. All fought with breathtaking strength and resilience to protect and sustain their families. They are among the most inspiring Tar Heels I’ve ever known.
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“They don’t want to help you when you’re in crisis — child care, food stamps and stuff. But they also don’t want to pay you enough that you can get by without those things. I think they do it on purpose, to leave you trapped. No matter how hard we work, we can’t get ahead. Everything we get, everything our kids get, is the worst. We work as hard as the folks in the offices do, even harder. Why won’t you pay us a wage we can live on?”
“You know you can’t make food and rent and transportation and electricity and day care on $8 dollars an hour in Charlotte. I work hard. I do a good job. I’m responsible. Why won’t you do right by me? What’s decent about that? All you people talk about being so religious. Where’s the Christianity in that? If you feel so responsible to your shareholders, who don’t you feel any responsibility to the people who work for you?”
“They don’t fool me. The food stamps, the tiny housing benefits, the bus passes — they’re really just to subsidize employers who treat their workers as if their lives don’t count. They remind us we don’t matter regardless of how hard we work. The people who run things are attached to the idea that you can’t pay a decent wage and make the kind of profit they want. So, finally, we don’t really exist.”
Experts define a “poverty level wage” as one that leaves a full time worker below the federal poverty threshold for a family of four (about $25,000). The NC Justice Center reports that one-third of all North Carolina workers earn less than a poverty level wage — the second worst ranking in the nation. And unlike all but a handful of states, we deny health care, an earned income tax credit, reasonable unemployment compensation, and, often, food stamps to low-income people. The General Assembly has moved toward an assured livable wage for state employees. All Tar Heels deserve as much. As St. Augustine put it, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
Gene Nichol, a professor at the UNC School of Law, is author of “The Face of Poverty in North Carolina: Stories from Our Invisible Citizens” (UNC Press, 2018).