What Does It Take to Survive Where You Live?

Richard Eskow

How much does it take to get by where you live? A new report concludes that current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour doesn’t come close, anywhere in the United States. It takes more than $15 per hour to earn a living wage in most states. When you throw in the rising cost of student debt, low-income Americans are even further underwater.

The report, “Waiting for the Payoff: How Low Wages and Student Debt Keep Prosperity Out of Reach (pdf),” was issued this week by the People’s Action Institute. Among its findings:

* It takes more than $15 per hour to earn a living wage in 42 states and the District of Columbia. That figure is over $16 in more than half of the country, comes to nearly $20 per hour in California, and is more than $20 in New York state.

* New York State’s minimum wage of $9 per hour provides only 44 percent of a living wage for a single adult and less than a quarter of the living wage for a single adult with two children.”

* Arkansas had the lowest hourly rate of any state, but at $14.58 per hour it was barely below the $15 per hour minimum proposed by Fight for 15.

* The situation is even more dire for working parents. A single adult with two children needs more than $26 per hour to get by in South Carolina, more than $41 per hour in New York state, and nearly $44 per hour in Washington DC.

* 43 states and Washington, D.C. have a lower minimum wage for tipped workers. Half of tipped workers are 30 years old or older, and tipped workers are three times as likely as other workers to be impoverished.

What’s the price of a dream? For people who saw college as the way to a better life, this country’s student debt crisis offers a harsh answer. More than 43 million Americans now carry some level of student debt.

Student loan debt in this country now totals more than $1.3 trillion – and it’s getting worse. Common Dreams’ Deirdre Fulton points to a new study from the Institute of College Access and Success which shows that the average undergraduate borrower now graduates with $30,100 in debt, a four percent increase from last year’s figure.

Living wage figures rise even higher when the cost of student debt is factored in. The national median payment for student debt comes to $242 per month. Student debt cost increases the national average living wage from $17.28 to $18.67 per hour.

College graduates typically earn higher wages, but the discrimination faced by women and people of color contributes to ongoing wage inadequacy. For example, African Americans are considerably more likely to take on student debt that white Americans, and are more likely to go to higher-cost private institutions. Women and people of color are more likely to work in tipped occupations, so the subminimum wage affects these groups disproportionately.

Wage discrimination is also a critical problem, both for student debt holders and low-wage workers as a whole. As the report notes:

“… Majors with a high proportion of white males, such as computer and information sciences, see starting salaries of $65,000. At the same time, English and Psychology, which see more women and people of color, have median starting salaries of $35,000 and $32,750 per year, respectively – lower even than the traditional living wage for a single adult.”

Discrimination in hiring and other systemic problems take a heavy toll. For each dollar paid to white male college graduates with degrees, black men are paid 78 cents; Latinos are paid 81 cents; black women are paid 72 cents; and Latinas are paid 69 cents.

Recent improvements in the topline employment number also tend to mask underlying problems in the labor market. Many of the jobs created since the Wall Street-driven financial crisis of 2008 have been in low-paying fields like food and drinking services (i.e., bars and restaurants), where the average weekly pay is only $339 a week, and home-health care services, a largely female workforce whose average weekly income is $548.

The People’s Action Institute report offers a list of recommendations to address these problems:

* Increase the minimum wage.

* Eliminate the tipped subminimum wage.

* Remove the need for student indebtedness and expand tax-free student debt
forgiveness.

* Establish paid sick days and expand the Family Leave Act to more workers.

* Strengthen and enforce equal opportunity statutes.

* Expand federal and state safety-net programs; and,

* Invest in living wage jobs.

What does it take to get by where you live? A dollars-and-cents answer can be found in this chart, which lays out the living wage in every state.

What will it take to survive? That’s a different question. It will take action – collective, concerted action – to demand policies that lead to a fairer economy.

On one level, this is a struggle over politics and policy. But there is a deeper battle underway. The fight for a living wage is a fight for a just economy. It is a fight to recognize the worth of our work and the value of our labor.

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