The Common Good
January-February 2000

Honest Pay

by Emily Dossett | January-February 2000

Why the living wage campaign is working.

Strolling down the Santa Monica pier on a sunny afternoon seems like the picture-perfect American experience. Children hold ice cream cones in one hand and pull parents toward the roller coaster with the other; older couples meander, arm in arm, toward the view of a Western sunset; teen-age surfers challenge the waves in the ocean below. Framing the pier and beaches are a string of posh hotels, restaurants, and retail stores, ready to cater to every whim of tourists who flock to this Southern California town. It’s a pleasantly chaotic scene, full of sight and sound and prosperous people having fun.

However, for many of the people working in the tourist industry, such prosperity is beyond their reach—not because of a lack of effort, but because of their low wages. Many hotels, which charge up to $450 a night per room, barely pay their workers $5.75 an hour. At this rate, a person working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, still brings home an income of only $11,960 a year—a full $4,500 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.

This discrepancy between work done and income earned is the focus of Santa Monica’s "Living Wage Campaign." The campaign seeks to raise the minimum wage to $10.69 an hour plus benefits, and it would apply to the "coastal zone," a mile-wide band of businesses along the beachfront.

While ambitious, Santa Monica’s campaign is just one of many that are growing around the country. The first successful living wage campaign took place in 1994 in Baltimore, and efforts have been multiplying around the country ever since. At last count, more than 50 municipalities have begun living wage initiatives, and 38 more have succeeded in their efforts. Most have targeted businesses that have contracts or receive subsidies from local governments; some campaigns, such as Santa Monica’s, are trying to reach even further to impact whole areas of municipalities. Also, different campaigns have made varying income and benefit demands, ranging from $6.75 with a 15 cent increase a year in St. Louis to $15.75 in Marin County, California.

The principle behind these living wage campaigns is simple: If a person works full time, he or she should not be poor. In a country where hard work and personal initiative are extolled as bedrock values, a living wage serves to put those values into practice. And since many wage earners are also the sole source of income for their family, a living wage enables family values of independence, security, and responsibility to become realities. For people of faith, these principles have a more profound meaning as well. Living wage campaigns are modern-day efforts that resonate with the simple, strong words of Psalm 103: "The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed."

The voices joining to support these arguments are growing in numbers and in strength. Potentially even more exciting are the repercussions these campaigns are having beyond their immediate goals. The first major effect is federal legislation raising the minimum wage: Congress is expected to raise the current standard of $5.15 to $6.15 over the next two years.

While it’s encouraging that lawmakers are starting to realize that hard work should be rewarded, raising the minimum wage to $6.15 still doesn’t lift families out of poverty. A more fitting solution would be federal legislation that raised the minimum wage as part of a comprehensive anti-poverty program. This solution would not only help to alleviate poverty for working families, it would eliminate the economic argument that areas with living wage laws would lose business to areas in the country without them.

A second, more profound repercussion of living wage campaigns is that they are helping reshape, with clarity and effectiveness, the debate around poverty and its links to growing economic inequality. In Los Angeles—a town whose 50 richest men and women are worth around $60 billion, while one in three children lives in poverty—the community’s understanding of "good economic times" desperately needs to be refocused.

With the help of living wage campaigns, that refocusing is happening. As The Los Angeles Times phrased it, "Today’s poverty icon is a working mother, toiling eight hours or more a day at a job that does not pay enough to cover the rent, clothe the baby, or provide a life of even minimal comfort." Even more directly, United Way billboards posted along Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica simply state, "The Choice for L.A.’s Working Poor: Food, Rent, or Medicine?" The goal of the living wage movement is to ensure that no one is forced into that kind of choice.

Emily Dossett, a first-year medical student at UCLA, interned last summer at the Call to Renewal national office.

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