Des Moines Register, April 28, 2008: Change focus from minimum wage to what’s a living wage

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Beth Enderle

“There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen… There is nothing except shortsightedness to prevent us from guaranteeing an annual minimum and livable income for every American family.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The minimum wage does exactly what it says by keeping earnings to a minimum. How are people able to survive on such a low wage? The answer is that most are struggling. Iowa made progress by raising the minimum wage to $7.25 this past January. The federal minimum wage will not increase to that wage until July 2009.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, its analysis of census data shows “that this is the first recovery cycle on record in which the median family income has not regained the ground lost since the last downturn.” Experts are debating whether we are now in another recession.

The typical working family’s income was lower in real terms in 2007 than in 2000. Even with the minimum-wage increase, families are still not as prosperous. So it’s necessary to look at not a minimum wage, but a living wage.

A living wage encompasses what is required to support an individual or family without the assistance of government programs. A living wage takes families out of poverty and allows them to be self sufficient. It would cover basic needs such as food, housing, clothing and transportation, plus health care. If an employer doesn’t help pay for health care, a higher wage is needed to pay this expense out of pocket.

The Living Wage Calculator, part of Penn State’s Poverty in America research project, figures expenses and a living-wage estimate for a specific region. A family of four in Davenport would need to make $19.15 an hour to have a living wage. That family of four would be at a poverty wage when making $9.39 an hour, which is more than $2 above our minimum wage. A family making the poverty wage would need government food assistance and other programs to attempt to make ends meet.

The Living Wage Calculator also lists jobs with the typical hourly rates in this region. The typical jobs that fall below the living wage for one adult supporting one child are food preparation and service, sales, production, office support, personal care and service, maintenance and health-care support. These jobs usually pay over the minimum wage, but are not enough to support a child and parent.

According to the Living Wage Resource Center, some government entities have set a living wage for contracted jobs, to ensure the government is not paying a wage that would keep workers in poverty.

What about the private sector? Some strides have been made in Chicago, where organizers have worked to get a living wage, despite the lobbying of big corporations such as Wal-Mart.

There is little talk of a living wage by the presidential candidates, although Sen. Barack Obama lists the living wage as part of his “plan to combat poverty” and mentions “the flat-lined minimum wage.”

What is Iowa doing about a living wage? The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is starting campaigns in Davenport and Iowa City.

Many people may think this issue does not affect them, but what would you do if you lost your job next week? Would you be able to find work with a higher wage, or would you take any job to keep money coming in to try to support your family?

BETH ENDERLE is a graduate student at the University of Iowa.

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