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The case for a higher minimum wage 

DiverseCity

Wages should increase with inflation, not decrease. In Colorado, that rule has held true for the top 1 percent of earners — not so much for its low-wage workers.

As Americans we work hard, we make money, and some of us manage to take the time to do what we love. This month, we celebrated Labor Day, a day of rest for workers who put in long hours all year. We enjoyed a little extra time with our families and friends to catch up on life, go to restaurants, maybe travel out of town or simply visit the movie theater. It was a time to revel in our economy and take in all the services it has to offer. Now, it seems fitting to reflect on those around us who provide services, but whose work is not valued enough to make a decent living wage, or at least $15 per hour.
Colorado’s Amendment 70, which passed in November 2016, will increase the state’s minimum wage 90 cents per year until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020. After that, it will be adjusted annually based on the cost of living as measured by the Colorado Consumer Index.

The Colorado Fiscal Institute, which provides independent state fiscal and economic analysis, reported this month that inflation is already eating up any hope one may find in wage increases, as the $12 per hour that was needed to earn a living wage in 2014 rose to $12.48 in 2016. As inflation raises the cost of living, $12 per hour will no longer suffice by 2020.

Many factors come into play when analyzing low-wage workers. The institute also reports: “In Colorado, 27.9 percent of [low-wage working] women make less than $12.48, compared to just 23 percent of men. Hispanic and African-American workers disproportionately hold low-wage jobs, as 36.7 percent of Hispanic and African-American workers make less than $12.48 in Colorado compared to one fourth of white workers.”

Assuming that trend is present in our city, many of our low-wage working black or Latino population are not making enough to pay their bills.
Not convinced? Let’s break it down. Fair Market Rent in El Paso County is $1,156 a month. Even if you look at it in pre-tax dollars, at $12.48 an hour it would take 92 hours of work a month just to pay that rent. With a 40-hour workweek, that leaves a person about $840 (before taxes) to pay the utilities, the phone bill, and transportation costs including insurance and gas, or bus fare. Many landlords require renters insurance, so you have to pay that too, plus toiletries and groceries. (Food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, isn’t meant to cover all monthly food costs.)

And that’s if you are able to work your full 40 hours every week of the month. That type of budget leaves no room for emergencies or unexpected purchases, let alone for health services that may not be fully covered by Medicaid.

In the circumstance of the average worker outlined above, the ability to pay one’s rent is on a month-to-month basis, leaving one vulnerable to homelessness. As the Indy reported earlier this year, the city’s homeless population was at an estimated 1,415 people, a 50 percent increase from the year prior.

Eric Fruits, an economist hired by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, who pushed back against increases to the state’s minimum wage, cited the numbers of jobs that could be lost — an argument that is, according to Chris Stiffler of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, “dubious if not outright misleading.”

Fruits also claimed that average low-wage workers are high school students or teenagers who aren’t necessarily dependent on their wages to provide for themselves. The Colorado Fiscal Institute’s research shows that the average low-wage worker is 30-plus years old, and many are women and minorities. Though the research did not include family size, it is a safe assumption that many of these people have children.

So, $12 per hour is a start in the right direction, but by no means should it be the conclusion. It is vital to prioritize further wage increases for those who work in the service and retail industries, as well as protection of workers rights (like unions) to make sure that wage increases and benefits rise with the cost of living.

The challenges faced by low-wage workers are insurmountable, and affect not only workers themselves, but taxpayers who must supplement the inadequate earnings as well.

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