Viewpoint

As Charlotte grows, so does low-wage work problem

People line up outside Crisis Assistance Ministry just north of uptown Charlotte.
People line up outside Crisis Assistance Ministry just north of uptown Charlotte. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor and Director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He doesn’t speak for UNC.

Almost 30 percent of full-time workers in Charlotte make less than $23,500 a year. They don’t typically reflect the profile often urged in political narratives. They aren’t fresh-faced teenagers looking for work experience before heading off to Stanford. The majority are over 30. They’re disproportionately female, black, Hispanic and Native American.

North Carolina has experienced a post recession explosion of low-wage jobs and an ensuing reduction in the percentage of employment opportunities capable of lifting workers out of poverty. Impressive numbers of jobs have been created in industries such as home health care, assisted living, retail, hospitality and food services.

But the wages they trigger are exceedingly modest. Almost six of ten new jobs produced here since the end of the recession are in industries that pay poverty level wages.

As N.C State’s Michael Walden puts it: “employment that once lifted workers into the middle class has been replaced by thousands of low-wage jobs” that can’t possibly accomplish the mission.

The cost of basic goods and services, from food to housing and childcare, has risen as median incomes, across various employment sectors, have frequently fallen.

Even if the economy improves more broadly, many low-wage workers tend to lose ground. So a city of commercial prowess, generating otherwise impressive levels of wealth and income, becomes a potent landscape of economic polarization. Amidst great and burgeoning prosperity, stunning numbers are locked out.

We’re the richest nation on earth. We choose to marginalize those at the bottom.

In North Carolina, we pile on. We’re a right to work state. We embrace employment at will. Public workers can’t collectively bargain.

In the last two years, we’re massively eroded work support, limiting childcare subsidies and adopting the greatest cut to unemployment compensation in the country. We’ve refused to raise the minimum wage. The legislature has prohibited willing municipalities from demanding living wages from contractors.

We say, at every turn, those at the bottom don’t count.

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