Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wages only part of poverty problem
By:  Dr. Yohuru Williams

A few weeks ago, the media was abuzz with news of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.
On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to proclaim "an unconditional war on poverty." The marking of this anniversary has understandably led some to reflect on the state of poverty in America in general and here in Connecticut in particular. Part of that discussion, here and elsewhere has centered on raising the minimum wage as a means of helping to boost the income and financial stability of those currently living at or below the poverty line.
Significantly, Connecticut is one of more than a dozen states that has either introduced or passed legislation to raise the minimum wage. While these efforts are in a broad sense admirable, given their narrow focus on wages they will likely prove inadequate to meet the needs of those struggling to stay above the poverty line.
Politicians certainly have the incentive and backing to experiment boldly. A recent Quinnipiac University study, for instance, found that 71 percent of Americans across party lines favored raising the minimum wage.
Nevertheless, the issue has become a political football. Opponents of the increase note that it may lead employers to suspend hiring. Economists, however, remain divided. While several recent studies have noted little to no impact from wage increases, others point to hiring dips after such hikes.
While experts debate the potential impact, the number of people in Connecticut struggling below the poverty threshold continues to rise. According to the United States Census Bureau, for instance, between 2008 and 2012, 10 percent of Connecticut residents were living below the poverty line. Those numbers increased dramatically however in the state's deindustrialized cities. In 2012, the Census Bureau noted that nearly a quarter of the city of Bridgeport's residents -- 23.6 percent -- were living below the poverty line. The numbers were similar for Waterbury, at 21.9 percent, and New Haven, 26.9 percent.
Most shocking, however, was the state capital of Hartford that reported a staggering 33.9 percent of residents living in poverty.
As the state braces for another week of bitter cold, these statistics are their own chilling reminder of the harsh reality of poverty both nationally and locally.
The proposed modest increase in the minimum wage would barely scratch the surface in addressing the needs of those below the threshold. While lawmakers take self-congratulatory bows for pressing for an increase, heating costs, gas prices, and the growing cost of basic foodstuffs largely negate any real change in buying power or saving capacity.
The $7.25 federal minimum wage, currently works out to roughly $15,000 a year, not nearly enough to survive in most states and especially in the state of Connecticut with its exceptionally high taxes and transportation costs. In 2012, the poverty line for unmarried and married wage earners (family of four) was $11,945 and $22,283 respectively.
Last year Connecticut ranked a lowly 37th on a list of places to live. Criteria that determined ranking included average wage and unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and cost-of-living data. A study conducted last July found that Connecticut residents paid the fourth highest prices for gas in the country averaging, at that time, around $3.90. With taxes and fuel costs, the minimum wage increase will be barely noticeable to most families. A move toward the numbers proposed by the Obama administration of $9 dollars would be closer to the mark -but in reality still not enough.
While the Democrats have historically led the charge on this issue, the discussions must go beyond politics to address some of the critical issues at the core of poverty in American society, even beyond the programs waged by the Johnson Administration back in 1964. The discussion must involve switching the dialogue from the notion of a minimum wage to the concept of a living wage, a true barometer of what it means to be living above poverty with all the factors that would entail including rising childcare costs, historic fuel prices, groceries and health care.
Significantly, the move toward the adoption of a true living wage might also reduce crime. Researchers have been able to show a significant statistical correlation among wages, income disparity and criminality. Numerous studies have linked low wages to increases in violent crime. A move toward establishing a living wage might help us construct fewer prisons and rebuild communities.
Of course, the cornerstone of all this is the need for an increase in jobs. Unfortunately, Connecticut has lagged behind in this department as well. This does not mean, however, that we cannot start a dialogue about a more holistic approach to dealing with the issue of poverty in the 21st century.
Clearly, models of past engagement have been flawed- perhaps because they preferred a band-aid approach to the hard research discussions and debate necessary to arrive at viable model for real change.
While the efforts of the legislature to raise the minimum wage can be appreciated in this regard, we should be clear: Raising the minimum wage is just a band-aid. Much more needs to be done in order to alleviate the burdens of Connecticut's and the nation's working poor.
Dr. Yohuru Williams is chairman and professor of history at
Fairfield University.
Twitter: @yohuruwilliams

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