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For Millions of Workers, a Minimum Wage Increase Still Falls Short of a Living Wage
NY Daily News
Albor Ruiz

January 13, 2010
View the Original Article

"It's better than nothing ..."

That was the reaction of Walter García, a restaurant cashier in Jackson Heights, Queens, when we told him about the federal minimum wage increase that became effective on Friday.

"But it is not enough," he added.

García, of course, is correct. Obviously, the hike in the hourly wage from $6.55 to $7.25 won't lift many people from poverty. Nevertheless, it is a good thing.

To fully understand the urgency of even such an inadequate raise, imagine trying to survive - not to mention raise children - on $260 a week. That is what millions of workers across the nation earned until Friday.

Workers need and are entitled to real living-wage jobs. Right now, a heated battle over gaining a living wage is being fought in the Bronx.

Members of the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance, a coalition of local groups, businesses and unions, insist on the inclusion by the developer of a binding community benefits agreement that guarantees retail workers at least $10 an hour, plus benefits.

The Related Cos., the project's developer, opposes the agreement because, according to them, requiring tenants to pay workers higher than the prevailing wage would doom the entire project. A public hearing on the controversial issue is set for tomorrow at 6 p.m. in the Lovinger Theater on the campus of Lehman College.

In truth, the new federal wage increase will benefit only an estimated 123,000 workers in the state of New York - and minimally. For minimum wage workers, weekly salaries will jump just $30 a week, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit economic research group.

Because the minimum wage was raised to $7.15 in January 2007, the new increase will have even a less noticeable impact in the state.

Yet, as García said, it's better than nothing.

Consider: The annual gross earnings after the wage increase for the more than 100,000 minimum-wage, full-time workers in the city (working 40 hours per week) is still only $15,080 annually. This is well below the $18,000 federal poverty level for a family of three and hardly enough to cover rent or put food on the table, but certainly not both. But for these workers, any little bit helps.

In 2007, after the minimum wage had been stagnant for 10 years, Congress finally passed a bill raising the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over the next two years. More than 2.1 million African-Americans and 2.3million Hispanics waited a decade for a boost in their pay.

The raise that became effective Friday was the last of the three increases approved by Congress.

Hopefully, low-wage workers will not have to wait another 10 years for a pay increase.

Researchers at the National Center for Children in Poverty, part of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, found that even at two and three times the federal minimum wage, full-time working parents are routinely unable to pay for basic necessities.

"Millions of American families scrape by on much less than what it takes to cover basic needs," said Kinsey Alden Dinan, NCCP senior policy associate.

As a result, she said, parents are forced to place children in unreliable or low-quality care arrangements, live in overcrowded or unsafe housing, or may fall behind on utility bills and rent.

"These are choices no family should have to make," Dinan added. "But sadly, it's the reality for more and more Americans."

That's why the Kingsbridge Armory workers deserve to win their fight for a living wage.