Q&A with Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of WNC

THE GOOD FIGHT: Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics of Western North Carolina, says housing costs in Asheville are in crisis. Photo courtesy of Meath

Many issues are close to Vicki Meath’s heart. She has spent her life in community organizing, working on environmental justice with Western Colorado Congress and striving to raise Ohio’s minimum wage with Cleveland Jobs With Justice. In 2010, she joined Just Economics of Western North Carolina, a nonprofit that advocates for a living wage, as executive director.

Asheville’s housing costs have risen steadily during her 11 years in the role, and now, Just Economics is “doubling down on housing and its connection to wages,” Meath says. “We often say that we have big-city housing costs, but we don’t have big-city wages.” (ApartmentList.com, a listings website that publishes rental trends for cities across the U.S., reported in November that Asheville’s median two-bedroom rent was $1,771, well above the national average of $1,285. Additionally, the city’s rents have grown by 29.8% over the past year, compared with 15.8% nationwide.)

Meath spoke to Xpress about what constitutes a living wage, her experience as a waitress, and her opinion on “hustle culture.”

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

What brought you to Asheville and your job at Just Economics? 

In 2006, I was working with an organization called Cleveland Jobs With Justice. I had been going through a divorce at the time, and my ex-husband and I decided we wanted to move back to Western North Carolina to co-parent, so we came here in 2007. I actually worked at [now-closed Asheville restaurant TK] Tripp’s for a while; I was waiting tables and living below the poverty line. I have very direct experience with a lot of the issues we are working on.

Why is economic justice the area you chose to focus on professionally? 

Economic justice is at the heart of so many of society’s problems. As a person that has struggled on a low income and been on the other side of people’s negative judgment and stereotypes, I deeply understand those issues. Throughout history, we have seen the only thing that rights those wrongs is organizing and peoples’ movements.

Just Economics designates certain businesses, including Mountain Xpress, as “living wage certified.” What’s the difference between a “living wage” versus a “minimum wage”?

A living wage means a person can meet their basic needs without public or private assistance if they’re working full-time. There’s something fundamentally and morally wrong with a society where full-time workers can’t put a roof over their head and food on the table. We know no one can really survive on $7.25, which is the current minimum wage.

If you’re making minimum wage and you’re working full-time, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year — never taking a single day off, because we know that low-wage workers often don’t have access to paid sick days or paid time off — you make $15,080 a year before taxes. That’s not enough for anyone in the country, certainly not in Western North Carolina and definitely not in Asheville, where the cost of housing alone would be a minimum-wage worker’s full paycheck.

Our living wage rate [$17.30 an hour or $15.80 an hour with employer-provided health benefits] is based on a single individual. But we know that a living wage for different people based on their family size is different.

How does Just Economics convince a business that they should become living wage certified?

We have a lot of employers that are truly trying to do right by their workers. And they care about the economic community. If low-wage workers have more money in their pockets, it’s better for their local economy because people are spending it in the local economy. Low-wage workers don’t have Swiss bank accounts and foreign investments. But workers spend that money at the local pizza shop, the local coffee shop, the local brewery and on rent.

We also talk about the business case for paying a living wage. When you pay your workers well — and more employers are seeing this right now and have been through the summer, as they were finding it hard to find workers — they tend to stay longer. You spend less money on retention, recruitment, training and development. And we have somewhat of a conscious consumer base here, so paying a living wage can give you a competitive edge.

In June, Asheville City Council approved a budget that included eight weeks of paid parental leave and six weeks of paid family leave for city employees. How did that come about? 

We led that campaign. We had actually worked with the city’s Human Resources department for about two years; we were waiting for a wage and compensation study to be completed. It was not a hard thing to sell to City Council members, especially as we have an all-female Council, and they tend to understand the need for care. But it was a lot of work with the HR department to make sure they understood financially what that meant for the city.

I’m a millennial, and during my 20s and early 30s, I heard a lot of messages that everyone should “hustle” and have a “side gig,” like driving for Uber. What are your thoughts on “hustle culture”?

I do think that’s problematic. It’s contradictory with a type of lifestyle that allows for rest, for health, for family, for caring for each other. It’s a type of lifestyle that takes some of what is human about us out of the equation.

People say things, like “If you don’t like your job, get a better job.” Well, there’s no time for learning new skills when you have to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week just to meet those basic needs.

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