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The bare minimum 

by Pia K. Hansen


Nobody wants to be poor. True, some may dedicate their lives to poverty and service, but most of the everyday working people who end up a handful of bucks short of paying the last bill didn't set out with that in mind. Today's working adults were raised thinking that getting a steady job would save them from poverty. But as families in the Inland Northwest struggle harder and harder to make ends meet, it becomes more and more obvious that getting just any job is no longer enough.


It has got to be a job that pays a wage one can survive on, and we are not talking new Porsches and annual trips to Europe here. Rather, we're talking about a job that pays for housing, food, health care, transportation and a little savings -- the bare essentials.


Many people mistakenly assume that a minimum wage is the same as the minimum one can survive on. That's not correct, it's the minimum an employer can legally pay a worker. A living wage, as it has come to be known, is what it takes for people to actually survive without public assistance.


In 1999, the Northwest Job Gap Study determined that 41 percent of the job openings in Washington state did not pay a living wage for a single adult; 72 percent did not pay a living wage for a single adult with two children. The same study concluded that 45 percent of the job openings in Idaho didn't pay a living wage for a single person; 75 percent didn't do so for a single adult with two children.


"The minimum wage in Idaho is $5.25. Last time the federal government raised it, the state of Idaho only raised it the minimum amount. It went up from $4.75," says Matt Haney, community organizer with the Idaho Community Action Network (ICAN), a statewide non-profit organization that works on social and economic justice issues. "I don't know how many people in Idaho get paid the minimum wage, but the most important point is that the minimum wage is not a living wage. In '96, a living wage was $9.22 an hour for a single adult -- and it hasn't gone down since." ICAN's new report on living wages is due out this week.


In Washington state, the current minimum wage is $6.72 an hour. Since voters passed the minimum wage initiative in 1998, Washington's minimum wage has a cost of living adjustment attached to it, which follows the rate of inflation.


"Washington is the only state in the country that has done this," says John Burbank from the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. "People who make this wage therefore maintain a certain purchasing power -- however low. But this is still not a living wage."


Other community activists agree. "I've noticed that certain people like to discuss 'family pay' or 'fair pay.' But let's be clear, no matter what you call it, $6.72 an hour is still a poverty wage," says Michael Ramos, a community coordinator with the Washington Living Wage Movement (WLWM), a grassroots group convened by the Washington Association of Churches, the Labor Council AFL-CIO and other community groups. "What we need to do is to unmask the reality of the situation. How much money do people need for food, clothing, shelter and transportation to be able to make it without public assistance. One thing I can tell you is that's not going to be $6.72 an hour."


WLWM's newly revised self-sufficiency standard will come out in September, but a University of Washington Northwest Policy Center study from 1999 estimates the living wage for a single adult in Washington state to be $10.25 an hour -- it's $16.86 for a single adult with two children.


Raising wages by law or ordinance is a touchy subject, especially in business circles. Most business owners will argue that they already pay as much as they possibly can, especially for the low-end jobs such as cleaning and waiting -- just as author Barbara Ehrenreich discovered.


But regardless of opposition, some communities have been successful in passing living wage ordinances that have at least a limited impact on how much workers get paid. Missoula, Mont., is such a community.


"It just passed in March this year. The living wage ordinance is a city ordinance and it applies to businesses that ask the city for subsidies and money for job creation," says Anita Anderson, state chairperson of Montana People's Action, which backed the ordinance. The living wage law also applies to all city jobs. "We were asking for $8 an hour, except for youth workers at the park. We got $7.95 an hour, and the living wage will go up when the city raises its salaries." The minimum wage in Montana is $5.25 -- the federal standard.


It was a tough battle to get as far as they have, says Anderson. The city council passed a resolution back in '97 supporting the idea, but, says Anderson, "that was a touchy-feely kind of resolution. It didn't really have any teeth. It sort of said, 'We'd like for you to do this, if you'd like to, sort of, pay a living wage.' "


The ordinance was on the ballot once before, but lost by a mere 400 votes. Actions were held at city council meetings, and Anderson says they had to work hard to overcome the prejudice of the business community.


"We went through the whole thing. Some said we were driving existing businesses out of Missoula. Others said no one would ever build a new business in Missoula. Another objection was that everyone, regardless of who they are, would have to pay a higher wage," says Anderson. "That's not true. It only applies to the businesses that get subsidies from the city, one way or the other. We think that's fair. If you are choosing to ask the city for money, then you have to follow the rules." Missoula is the 52nd city to pass a living wage ordinance across the country, joining places like Baltimore, so has it had any effect yet?


"It's so new it hasn't been widely used yet. I think it will affect about 400 workers," says Anderson. "That one scare tactic that it would drive businesses away I don't think is going to hold. I don't see anyone packing up and leaving, and many of the national chains that are moving in have given us positive feedback."


As for improving wages in Spokane, Washington Living Wage Movement's Ramos says that even though meetings are held on a monthly basis, his organization is not pushing for a city ordinance.


"What we are doing right now is trying to educate ourselves on the poverty issues in Spokane. We know poverty exists in Spokane -- the discussion is more about what level of wages are needed," he says. "Our belief is that a person working full time should not have to live in poverty -- but it's not like we are coming to Spokane and pushing an ordinance on everyone."


There are many working poor in Spokane. Last year, more than 60 percent of the clients served by the Second Harvest Food Bank said they had worked in the past year -- more than half said they had worked for at least nine months.


Ramos says he realizes the term living wage is highly subjective, yet he maintains that certain basic needs should be able to be filled by people who work minimum wage jobs.


"We believe that a living wage is a wage which will allow people to support themselves without public assistance," he says. "Whatever that is, in the individual community, is what we should aim for. But I'm not saying that passing a living wage ordinance is the right thing to do in Spokane. Our work is also about community building -- we are trying to discuss the need for a living wage in Spokane. That's also what's going to be best in the long run for the community."
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