In the insulated world of Washington politics, raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, where it has been stuck since July 24, 2009, appears to be a hopeless endeavor, even though the cost of living has increased by 20% during that time. The $15 minimum hourly pay that pragmatic Democrats have tried to smuggle into the latest virus relief bill is proving to be just another mirage shimmering with false promise across a desert of need (”COVID-19 relief bill updates: Minimum wage hike all but dead in Senate,” March 1).
The cruel irony is that even a $15 hourly wage is not a living wage in half of the United States and certainly not in Baltimore. The Economic Policy Institute figures that a family of two adults and two children living in the city would need an annual salary of $77,000 to cover the cost of rent, food, utilities, transportation, child care, health, insurance, taxes and incidentals like clothing. The rent in this model is set at $1,075 a month, but I was hard put to find even a one-bedroom apartment for rent in Baltimore for that price, let alone a two-bedroom. Even with both parents working full time at the $15 hourly rate, they could only reach a gross income of $62,400 and so would be hard put to pay for anything except the bare basics with health insurance out of their reach.
But roughly one-third of households in the U.S. are headed by single parents and a majority of those work in minimum wage jobs. They are the “front-line workers” suddenly recognized as “heroes” that keep the rest of us supplied with essential services, though firms are already balking at continuing to offer hazard pay to them. At this time, depending on their workplace, they earn between $8 and $12 an hour with an exceptional employer going as high as $15 or even above. Still, in 2018, 23% of families in Baltimore lived in in poverty, defined as less than $26,200 for a family of four and $21,720 for a family of three.
For families whose income falls below that level there still exists a tattered social network with modest supplementary food assistance and health care for minor children as well as subsidized insurance premiums under the Affordable Care Act. But even with a $15 wage and full employment, a single worker’s income of $31,200 before taxes would fall far short of covering even a family’s most basic needs like food and rent, and the most minor disruption or accident could have catastrophic consequences such as homelessness.
Can the politicians not do the math, or does the myth of the Black welfare queen still blind them to the economic reality in which 37% of white families in the U.S. live below the poverty line? Instead of a minimal $15, a more realistic amount would be $20 or $25 an hour combined with subsidized child care to keep children safe and parents working. But that would get us close to Scandinavian standards and socialism — and we can’t have that, can we?