In response to the article "Down and Out," which ran in the Mountain Xpress the week of May 5, and especially Christopher Head's excellent comment:
"I don't mind not making very much money, but I'd like to not have to worry about paying rent every single month. I don't feel that these lower-paying jobs are worthless: Someone has to do them. I'm not saying we should make tons of money, but since someone has to do these jobs, they should be able to afford to live [in exchange] for working all the time."
The connection between unemployment and poverty is fairly clear — no work, no income — but the connection between low-wage employment and poverty is not so often emphasized. Today, millions of working people struggle to cover the cost of housing, food, health care, childcare and other basic necessities. According to N.C. Employment Security Commission data released in 2009, 31 percent of the Buncombe County workforce earns less than the minimum required for an individual to afford basic necessities — that means that one third of Buncombe County workers are struggling each month to pay their bills. As Forbes' article states further on, 28 percent of all families receiving food stamps are working full-time.
I believe that working should keep you out of poverty. That working people have to rely on federal aid to make ends meet is not only counterintuitive, it's counterproductive: social services are more costly to taxpayers than they are valuable to recipients. Raising wages is a more effective way of boosting worker incomes and also builds economic self-sufficiency and job satisfaction among workers. Better paid, happier and healthier employees translates to lower turnover rates and training costs for businesses. Research shows that businesses that pay good wages are more likely to be sustainable in the long term, and (as Governor Purdue emphasized recently) strong local business are critical to our economic recovery.
How we handle poverty now affects the speed and sustainability of our community's economic recovery. Just increasing the employment rates in minimum-wage and low-wage jobs isn't enough to keep poverty out of Buncombe County.
What can we do to get over the hump?
Getting working people out of poverty is the first step. Employers, including Asheville city contractors, must support their workers by paying a Living Wage. For 2010, this is $11.35/hour or $9.85/hour with employer-provided benefits. Consumers must support these businesses and shop Living Wage Certified (look for the sticker emblem in store windows throughout Asheville). And the broader community must shift its focus away from short-term fixes to poverty, investing instead in efforts that address the root causes of poverty and aim for a sustainable economic recovery that works for all.
— Sophia Hatz
Americorps VISTA, Voices Program Coordinator