Opinion Columns & Blogs

A living wage is a benefit to all of us

Maybe this won’t surprise some who live in Charlotte. It shocked me.

Fifty-nine percent of the occupations in Mecklenburg County pay average wages below $35,000. That’s a figure below the living income standard for a family with one adult and one child.

And many make far below that $35,000 figure. Some are stuck at the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, about $14,500 a year.

These are poverty wages. For two-parent or one-parent families, such pay won’t even meet the basic needs of food, clothing and housing.

Larry Mackey, a city utility worker and vice president of the city workers union, expressed the incredulity I felt about what far too many face in the Queen City, the nation’s second-largest banking center and arguably the Tar Heel state’s most prosperous city: “People shouldn’t have to struggle like this. This is Charlotte!” he exclaimed Wednesday during a panel discussion entitled, “What North Carolina Families Need to Make Ends Meet.” I moderated the discussion.

Low-wage occupations have boomed across North Carolina, not just in Charlotte, since the Great Recession ended and recovery started, notes the N.C. Justice Center’s Alexandra Sirota. Sirota, director of the center’s Budget & Tax Center, presented a new report at Wednesday’s forum detailing the troubling rise in low-wage, and even more daunting “ultra-low wage,” industries in North Carolina between June 2009 and the third quarter of 2013. More than 80 percent were industries that pay workers less than $33,709. Ultra-low wage jobs in N.C. have grown 57 percent since 2009.

This reality should temper the crowing state policymakers are doing about job growth and falling N.C. unemployment.

Growth in low-wage jobs means this: Taxpayers not only subsidize those jobs due to the increased need for food, medical and housing assistance – assistance ultra-low wage employers depend on and even encourage – communities lose dollars that workers would pay in taxes and goods they could buy if the workers were paid a living wage.

Patrick Graham, president and CEO of the Urban League of Central Carolinas, emphasized that point Wednesday: “We need to change the dialogue about the poor. (Such workers represent) are opportunities and have potential buying power if they make a living wage.”

He noted that investments in training and education, as well as providing an adequate safety net as people transition into jobs with higher earning power, are a benefit to all of us in the long run.

Unfortunately, many policymakers are not wisely connecting the dots on this issue. N.C. legislators have cut education, health and social services rather than strengthening and investing in them at a very crucial time.

Take child care. Child care costs rose 28 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to the Economic Policy Institute. It is now the largest expense for most low-income N.C. households. In Mecklenburg County, it is the second largest expense following health care. It is double the cost of housing for such households.

Yet in the N.C. Senate budget unveiled recently, lawmakers changed the eligibility guidelines for a subsidy, tossing thousands out of the program which provides low-income working parents access to affordable and safe child care while they support their families. The likely result? More families will need one parent to stay home instead of work, slashing the family income. More families will need more government assistance.

Does this make sense? No.

Mackey noted other critical consequences of non-living wage jobs: Stringing together several jobs or working constant overtime to make ends meet hurts families. “You don’t have time for your family. You’re losing family. You’re losing your kids to the neighborhood,” he said.

The cost of losing children to criminal activity in neighborhoods is something policymakers should pay attention to. That is a huge financial cost to all of us.

Graham added this important perspective. The issue of a living wage or income standard is not just about “public policy,” he said, “it’s about private policy too.”

Businesses must see the value of paying employees a wage they can live on, and consumers should patronize businesses willing to do so, he said. History has shown the benefits of raising the wage floor. Far from eliminating jobs, the base of taxpayers and consumers usually grows.

More than 370 businesses in the Asheville area have signed onto providing a living wage (calculated at $11.85 an hour) for their employees. The nonprofit group Just Economics of Western North Carolina has been pushing the effort for businesses to sign on.

Businesses in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County should vow to do the same. It’s an investment in our community from which we will all reap the benefits.