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The Real Living Wage? $17.28 An Hour – At Least

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Fifteen dollars shouldn’t be too much to ask – or demand.

In almost every state, a worker needs more than $15 an hour to make ends meet. Add in student debt, and the minimum living wage shoots up to $18.67 an hour nationally. A family with children needs significantly more.

That’s according to new research from People’s Action Institute, which calculates the national living wage at $17.28. A living wage is the pay a person needs to cover basic needs like food, housing, utilities and clothing, along with some savings to handle emergencies.

In some states, the living wage is much higher. New Jersey, Maryland, and New York have a living wage greater than $20 per hour for a single adult. In Hawaii and Washington, D.C., that figure hits almost $22 per hour. No state has a living wage for a single adult lower than $14.50 an hour.

This is the first report in the annual Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series to factor in the $1.3 trillion in student debt owed by college students nationwide into the calculation of what a living wage should be nationally and in the states.

“Students should not be saddled with thousands of dollars in debt after graduation. However, those who do graduate with debt need jobs that pay enough to make ends meet,” the report says. “And, making ends meet should include not only basic necessities like food and housing, but the ability to put aside money for savings and to pay off existing debt.”

In addition to calling for increasing the federal minimum wage to a living wage and eliminating the tipped subminimum wage, usually paid to people like restaurant servers, the report also calls for expanding tax-free student debt forgiveness and reinvesting in higher education to eliminate the need for student loans to begin with.

“We Just Choose Bills Out Of a Hat”

In Iowa, where the living wage is $15.10 an hour for a single person – twice the state minimum of $7.25 – and higher for families with children, people are doubling and tripling up on jobs, rooming together, and even turning to predatory payday loans.

Tonja Galvan is one of those Iowans. She makes a bit more than $20 an hour at the John Deere plant in Ankeny, near Des Moines, where she lives with her mother, daughter, and granddaughter. Even with three generations of the family working – her mother and granddaughter are paid much lower wages – they can never catch up.

“When we can’t pay everything,” Galvan says, “we just choose bills out of a hat to see what we’ll pay and what we’ll push to the next month.”

Galvan sees many other families struggling – and she’s helping take charge in a campaign with the Iowa Citizen for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI). Galvan has joined other workers, teachers, service providers, and other Iowans to press for a higher wage floor, hitting the doors in her community and speaking with county supervisors.

They’ve scored wins in four counties around the state – Johnson, Linn, Polk, and Wappelo – with a phase-in of new wage floors ranging from $10.10 to $10.75. (Johnson County’s will also be pegged to the consumer price index.)

Iowa CCI organizer Matthew Covington calls the increases “a step in the right direction,” but he’s the first to say they’re just a step. His organization is now making sure cities in Polk County match that county minimum, take it higher, and close exemptions for the restaurant and grocery industries. Meanwhile, Iowa CCI also has their sights set on the state legislature.

In Colorado, a coalition of nonprofits, faith groups, and small businesses are taking a different approach for raising the wage floor. They’re turning to the ballot box.

An initiative supported by this coalition, Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, would gradually increase the hourly minimum statewide to $12 by 2020.

Though the corporate opposition has poured money into the state, there’s plenty of business support for increase – and recent research from the University of Denver debunking claims of a negative impact on jobs.

In fact, Lizeth Chacón, executive director of Colorado People’s Alliance (COPA) and co-chair of the coalition, says the number of jobs grew after the state’s last minimum wage increase, in 2006. Those gains were seen in restaurants, small businesses, and rural areas. The number of small businesses in the state also increased.

“Small businesses helped put this proposal together,” says Chacón. “They said, ‘We’re already paying our staff more because we want them to be able to support their families and stay with us.’”

The People’s Action Institute living wage figures show just how needed these fierce campaigns are. As Iowa CCI’s Covington knows, the numbers aren’t academic. “The more we talk about actual costs,” he says, “the more it helps.”

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on October 25, 2016. Reprinted with Permission.

Julie Chinitz is currently the special projects director for Alliance For A Just Society. She previously served as policy director from 2010 to 2012 and as a staff attorney/policy analyst from 2002. She developed projects combining participatory research, policy analysis, and base-building. Prior to joining the Alliance, she was an Equal Justice Fellow with Northwest Health Law Advocates, where she launched a program to increase access to health care in Washington’s Yakima Valley. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and Columbia University School of Law and has worked extensively with public interest and human rights organizations.


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Report: Immigration Reform Would Boost Economy

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Image: James ParksA new report shows that comprehensive immigration reform would help American workers and the U.S. economy. Reform that offers a path to citizenship for currently unauthorized workers and enforces workers’ rights would raise the “wage floor” for the entire U.S. economy and increase the total gross domestic product (GDP) by at least $1.5 trillion over the next decade, the report says.

Raising the Floor for American Workers,” by the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center, says finding a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers is a much better alternative in this economic crisis than expanding guest worker programs or mass deportation.

The temporary worker program only generates an annual increase of 0.44 percent in the nation’s GDP or $792 billion over 10 years. It also leads to declining wages for newly legalized immigrant workers, the report says.

Mass deportation would reduce U.S. GDP by 1.46 percent annually or $2.6 trillion, not including the actual cost of deportation, the report adds. Wages would rise for less-skilled native-born workers, while wages for higher-skilled natives would drop. The deportations would lead to widespread job loss as well.

History bears out these findings, according to the report. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which provided opportunities for citizenship, was enacted during an economic recession characterized by high unemployment. Yet it helped raise wages and spurred increases in educational, home and small-business investments by newly legalized immigrants.

Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, director of the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the report’s author, says:

This is a compelling economic reason to move away from the current “vicious cycle” where enforcement-only policies perpetuate unauthorized migration and exert downward pressure on already low wages, and toward a “virtuous cycle” of worker empowerment in which legal status and labor rights exert upward pressure on wages.

Click here to read the full report.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on January 11, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris


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