Fair, living wages would fight poverty
By Kathleen McKenzie
I volunteer at the Edmonds Food Bank. When the Food Bank opened in 1981 it served 30 families a week. In one recent — and representative— week 383 families made their way through the line. What has caused this tenfold increase in need? Who are these families?
The people who use the Edmonds Food Bank are very like the people I met at another Food Bank where I volunteered in the past. They are people who have been laid off from work, people who cannot work because of age, illness or disability or they are people who are working — at one or even two full-time jobs, jobs that leave them exhausted and dispirited and still unable to put enough food on the table for themselves and their families. The 383 families served at the Edmonds Food Bank on that recent week included 200 infants and toddlers — young children who must receive adequate nutrition in order to grow, learn and thrive.
The need for food banks, and other social safety nets, has risen together with the cost of living. A National Low-Income Housing Coalition study completed this year shows that, in order to afford a studio apartment in Snohomish County, an individual would need to have a full-time job paying $14.83 an hour. A two bedroom apartment would require a full-time salary of $21.60 an hour.
The cost of living has skyrocketed. Corporate profits are at record highs. What has not kept pace — and gives the lie to this illusion of plenty — is worker wages. Corporate spokespeople point out that there is plenty of work; new jobs are being created daily. Yes, there are jobs, but the government estimates that 50 percent of the new jobs being created in the next decade will be low-wage jobs such as food service, retail and home care.
Who can live on scarcely more than $9 an hour? A couple or individual working two of these low-wage jobs could afford the rent on a studio apartment in Snohomish County but would have little left to pay for the other necessities of life such as electricity, heat, transportation, clothing, childcare and school fees, insurance and medical co-pays. And food. Too often, the working poor are forced to make hellish choices: needed medical care or food? Adequate heat or food? Food banks offer them a small slice of help.
There is no shame in coming to a food bank. Food bank volunteers know that any one of us could suffer a layoff, a medical setback or one of a dozen life events that would find us on the receiving end of our services.
But there is, or should be, shame in the corporate greed that would starve its own employees rather than pay fair wages.
The status quo is untenable. It is soul-killing and short-sighted. Corporate spokespeople argue that increasing wages will hurt the economy — that businesses will fail and jobs will be lost. This is a peculiar logic born of avarice and fear that ignores the obvious — that giving workers more money means more customers for more businesses. And people whose lives are not consumed with mere survival can give back to their community and their country in many ways.
Beyond the benefits to the economy, increasing wages raises workers’ sense of dignity and self-worth; it allows them to provide for their own families and perhaps to help others to provide for theirs. It raises not just the monetary, but the moral value, of the community.
Working in a food bank allows me to see the best of people. People unselfishly, almost without thinking, pull a can of soup from their own sack of groceries and drop it into the donation bin at the supermarket. They hold creative fund-raisers and old-fashioned food drives to help needy neighbors. But, alone, these acts of kindness will not fix the problem. As a people, a good and generous people, we have to demand an end to income inequality. We have to acknowledge that a nation that allows its workers to starve may prosper in the short run but, in the end, it will be financially and morally bankrupt.
Wage increase will drive up costs for all
By Emory Cole
The desire by some politicians to increase the state minimum wage from the current $9.32 an hour to $15 an hour represents a 62 percent increase, which would be detrimental to small businesses.
Imagine for a moment what a 62 percent increase would do to your personal budget. Apartment rent of $1,000 a month would become $1,620. That $3.50 morning latte would cost $5.67. A gallon of gasoline at $3 per gallon would cost $4.86, and so on. The minimum wage will increase to $9.47 on Jan. 1.
The $15 Now campaign is backed by the Service Employees International Union. The unions have to promote a higher minimum wage so there is enough money for their subjects to afford to pay union dues. It all has little to do with improving the condition of low wage workers but more to do with creating a more powerful union.
Traditionally, our country has established a minimum wage so that young people and immigrants entering the labor market can begin to learn a trade and, in time, become a productive part of a business enterprise and earn higher wages based on performance. The minimum wage was never intended to support a family of four or maintain family income above the government established “poverty level,” as is often portrayed by organized labor and politicians most interested in getting elected to public office. Also keep in mind: Government is a major beneficiary of higher wages because they collect more taxes as a result.
Recently elected Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant has been the most vociferous proponent of the “$15 Now” campaign. Sawant, a socialist, became a citizen of the United States in 2010 after her marriage to a U.S. citizen. She emigrated from Mumbai, India, where she graduated from college with a degree in computer science. In the U.S. she went back to college and earned a degree in economics and has taught that subject part time at Seattle Community College. It is unfortunate that Sawant is not more inclined to be as vocal about the value of higher education and hard work to improve one’s economic status in life as she herself has done, aka as “The American Way.” Instead, she complains about how unfair our capitalist system is to low-wage workers and how she can make it all better for us in this country through income redistribution. Nonsense!
Recent history clearly demonstrates the devastating effects of many decades of socialist policies in countries such as Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and India. These policies have, in many respects, driven countries to near bankruptcy and lowered their credit ratings. Young entrepreneurs from France and Italy are leaving their home countries because taxes are so burdensome and there are few decent employment opportunities for their younger generations.
A sharp increase in the minimum wage to $15 will cause major ripple effects throughout the labor market. Workers earning this wage currently will certainly want to be paid above the $15 minimum. This will only provide incentives for our state’s largest employers to seek cheaper labor markets for their manufacturing, cause major price increases for services, and likely force many small employers out of business.
It is naive to believe a dramatic increase in the minimum wage will greatly improve our struggling economy. Likely, all it will do is make the price of commodities much more expensive such as lattes, restaurant meals, groceries and home goods. I wish the media would take time to ask the $15 Now protesters who they actually work for when they are out parading around fast food restaurants. It is likely many of them are being paid by SEIU or other union affiliates and not working for Subway or MacDonald’s.
I hope the voters in Washington are smart enough to see through the “smoke and mirrors” of these socialist political efforts.
Emory Cole is a small business owner and former mayor of Mukilteo.