Up from poverty

Since relocating to Asheville several years ago, I’ve been struck by how often I hear it said that Asheville is a unique place. It’s a great place to live for many reasons—the beautiful environment, the small-town atmosphere, the friendly people who live here, and all the great music, art and local businesses.

But one thing I’ve found that’s not very different from most other places in the country is that a lot of people here are working for very low wages. Nationwide, more than 30 million people (about one-quarter of the work force) have jobs that pay poverty-level wages, according to Beth Shulman’s The Betrayal of Work (New Press, 2003).

As of May 2006, the median wage for the 167,000 nonfarm jobs in the Asheville area was $12.79 an hour (about $26,000 a year), according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Half the jobs in Asheville paid less than that, those numbers show, and a quarter of them paid $9.27 an hour (about $19,000 a year) or less.

Think about that. How can you pay rent (forget about buying a house), pay the bills, and cover all of life’s other necessary expenses—child care, transportation, food, clothing, health care, etc.—on less than $20,000 a year? You can’t. No one can. As a result, people have to work more than one job or rely on public assistance to make ends meet and provide for their families.

According to the conservative John Locke Foundation, the total expenditure on public-assistance programs—cash welfare, Medicaid, Special Assistance for Adults and other means-tested programs for low-income North Carolinians—accounts for about one-third of the state’s $20 billion budget. Between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, real public-assistance spending per low-income person has tripled, the group notes. What they don’t tell you, however, is that during that same period, the average income of the poorest 20 percent of North Carolina families increased by only $105 per year—from $12,650 to $14,884, according to a report by the Economics Policy Institute.

Considering that the average annual rate of inflation during that period was about 3.1 percent according to the Web site inflationdata.com, the average income of the state’s poorest families should have increased by several hundred dollars per year just to keep pace with inflation. Clearly, these people are worse off now than they were 20 years ago.

There’s a common belief that a person can escape poverty by working hard—even at a low-wage job. But the new federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour still amounts to only $12,168 per year for full-time work, five days per week for 52 weeks per year. And even North Carolina’s new minimum wage ($6.15 an hour) works out to just $12,792 per year—less than the 2007 federal poverty level for two people ($13,690). When you can work full time for an entire year and still fall below the poverty line, something is terribly wrong.

The point is that reducing public-welfare benefits without a concurrent commitment to increasing wages for working people serves only to punish those who want to work and earn a decent living for themselves and their family. Frustration with political inaction in response to poverty-level wages gave birth to the living-wage movement.

Beginning in Baltimore in 1994, an alliance of labor and religious leaders launched a successful campaign for a local ordinance requiring businesses providing services to the city to pay their employees a minimum hourly rate that would place a full-time worker above the federal poverty line. Since then, more than 140 cities, counties, school boards and other public institutions have enacted living-wage laws, and other such campaigns are under way in more than 115 places in the United States—including right here in Asheville.

The living-wage proposal recently presented to City Council is the product of the Asheville/Buncombe Living Wage Campaign. The campaign is a project of Just Economics, an Asheville-based nonprofit whose mission is “to educate, advocate and organize for equitable economic conditions, increased union representation and a fair share for all in the prosperity of our region, regardless of race, gender or citizenship status.” The campaign has determined that a living wage for Asheville today would be $10.86 an hour without health benefits, or $9.50 an hour with health benefits. This is the minimum amount that a single person working 40 hours per week for 50 weeks per year would need to make to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the Asheville area.

The campaign’s short-term goals are: (1) get the city of Asheville to recognize the value of a living wage to the community and become a living-wage employer (which it did on May 22, 2007); (2) pass an ordinance that would require or at least provide incentives for local businesses that contract with the city to pay their employees a living wage (city staff is now studying this idea); and (3) establish a voluntary living-wage certification program to recognize private businesses in the Asheville area that do pay their employees a living wage.

Just as consumers look for products labeled “locally grown,” “fair trade” and/or “organic,” we believe that many consumers would be willing to shop for “living wage” goods and services and to support those businesses that pay their employees a living wage. And remember: The more money area residents make, the more money is spent in the local economy, and the less is required for public-assistance programs, which benefits all of us.

If you believe, as I do, that no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, then please join the living-wage campaign and help us make a difference.

[Asheville attorney Steve Agan serves on the board of Just Economics.]

To find out more about the local living-wage campaign, visit www.justeconomicswnc.org , call 301-7291, or e-mail info@justeconomicswnc.org

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