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A Minimum Matter of Survival.

Poster for Works Progress Administration encouraging laborers, by the Federal Art Project (between 1936 and 1941). Courtesy Work Projects Association Poster Collection (Library of Congress).
Poster for Works Progress Administration encouraging laborers, by the Federal Art Project (between 1936 and 1941). Courtesy Work Projects Association Poster Collection (Library of Congress).

Stepping through the bright yellow door and into the cafeteria of Neighbors Together, the first thing you notice are the white Fruit of the Loom T-shirts pinned to one wall above a chalkboard. Messages are scrolled in thick, uneven black marker across the front of the shirts: "Governor Pataki: Help Us in Our Struggle," "Election Day Is Coming," and so on. The day’s menu is Tuna Mac, string beans, carrots and chicken patties, and the cooks have been here since dawn preparing the meal.

The long tables are set with Styrofoam cups and plastic silverware, and soon they will be crowded with people eating lunch. The men and women who arrive promptly at 11 a.m. come here because they’re hungry. They are not teenagers. Most of them are not homeless. Many of them work full-time jobs to support their families and pay the bills.

These are the men and women who earn New York State’s minimum wage.

"We’re seeing more working people than ever before—they come to us for emergency food because they work minimum wage jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent and buy groceries," says Ed Fowler, executive director of the Ocean Hill, Brooklyn soup kitchen.

New Yorkers who make minimum wage earn $5.15 per hour for a 40-hour week. That amounts to $206 a week, or little more than $10,000 a year, before taxes. In April, the New York State Assembly voted to raise the minimum to $7.10 per hour, and 48 of the state’s 62 senators say they support the bill. However, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) has repeatedly blocked the motion from reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

While Bruno stalls in Albany, more than 700,000 New Yorkers are earning wages below $7.00 per hour, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a nonpartisan research organization that focuses on the economic well-being of New York State residents. That’s more than triple the number of working poor in the state in 1979. Currently, "The minimum is not providing the floor it was intended to provide," says Eva Bonime, campaign coordinator for the $5.15 Is Not Enough Coalition. The coalition, which includes Brooklyn’s Working Families Party (WFP) and a host of community, labor and clergy organizations, is spearheading efforts to increase the minimum wage in the state.

The disparity between minimum-wage workers’ earnings and those of other workers in the state is severe: the FPI reports that the average weekly wage in the state is more than four times the minimum. "The wage at $5.15 an hour is ludicrous, especially in a high-wage state like New York," says Vivian Horn, downstate policy coordinator for the Hunger Action Network, a statewide anti-hunger coalition that works in lower and middle income communities around the state.

Nationally, New York State is a leader in wage disparity. A 2002 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported that over the past 20 years New York State has shown the biggest jump in inequality among the 50 states. Rather than keeping pace with other high-wage states such as California, New York is paying its entry level employees—many of them single mothers or family breadwinners—the same minimum wage as West Virginia and Arkansas, two of the poorest states in the nation. Nearby, Connecticut’s minimum is $6.90, while Massachusetts starts at $6.75.

In New York, the minimum wage has been fixed at $5.15 per hour since 1997, despite erosion in the value of the wage due to inflation, explains David Jones, president of New York’s Community Service Society (CSSNY). "An hourly wage of $5.15 in 1997 is now worth only $4.59," says Jones, who directs the independent CSSNY, an organization working to defeat the problems of urban poverty in the state. "If poor single mothers are expected to support their families by holding down a job, as it is argued, then we should offer them a path out of poverty."

But the National Federation of Independent Businesses, representing about 20,000 small businesses in New York State, argues that an increase in the minimum would adversely affect mom and pop stores. The group argues that a hike of $1.60 an hour (to a $6.75 per hour minimum) would cost a small bakery owner upwards of $30,000 a year— approximately $7,500 per employee in wages along with additional burdens from an increase in the cost of benefits.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, a national organization providing resources to HR professionals, increasing the minimum wage will reduce "the incentive to create and maintain entry level and low wage jobs." This argument, included in a form letter the group distributed to its 10,000 members intending for them to sign it and send to their senators, instead suggested that New Yorkers "let the market continue its work in adjusting wages to appropriate economic conditions, naturally."

Recent studies, however, suggest that the argument that a higher minimum wage would unfavorably impact small businesses may be bogus. "There is no concrete evidence of any significant job loss or proof that local business suffers," says Horn, citing the latest report from the FPI. The report, released in April, compares states with higher minimums to those states where the $5.15 federal minimum prevails. The report found that since 1997, regardless of economic expansion or recession, higher state minimums have not adversely affected employment growth.

"It is hard to sustain the argument made by some observers that an increase in the minimum wage will result in adverse aggregate employment outcomes," the FPI report concludes.

Opponents of the wage increase also argue that most minimum wage earners are teenagers—working at The GAP or running the counter at their local ice cream parlor. But, according to another recent FPI report, if New York’s minimum were increased, of the more than half a million New York workers who would benefit—including the more than 150,000 in Kings County—79% are adults, 78% work more than part-time, and 61% of them are women.

Consider the crowd who eats lunch on any given day in the Neighbors Together soup kitchen. More than 50 of the 200 or so visitors hold full-time jobs. Some of them work in the area and come every day—this is one meal they can count on, according to Fowler. For others, taking advantage of the free lunch is only necessary near the end of their pay period, when they "really have to scurry to get by," he says.

"Very few people we work with are able to make enough money to not still need emergency food," says Fowler. "It’s difficult to work a full-time job when the threat of homelessness is very real."

Organizations assisting minimum wage earners are accustomed to hearing stories of eviction notices, overdue utility bills and empty stomachs—even from full-time workers throughout the state. "When we talk to folks about why they need emergency assistance, we talk a lot with people who just aren’t making enough to make ends meet," says Horn of the community served by the Hunger Action Network.

The Network supports the Assembly bill passed in April, which would raise the minimum incrementally to $7.10 by 2006. The Network also endorses the Universal Living Wage—a campaign launched by a group in Austin, Texas—that uses a single national formula to advocate a living wage for all workers, not just government employees. "One size does not fit all," declares the campaign website.

The Universal Living Wage "formula" is based on existing federal guidelines holding that people should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing if they work a 40-hour week. In an Austin American Statesman editorial, Richard Troxell, national chairman for the Universal Living Wage campaign, wrote: "That’s true Homeland Security."

Achieving this formula in all New York State counties would take more than the proposed increase, according to Horn. "Even the $7.10 an hour being proposed right now is inadequate in many counties, but it’s a step in the right direction," she says. "Getting people off of government assistance should be an incentive," says Horn.

The majority of New Yorkers agree with this sentiment, at least according to recent polls. A 2001 survey found that 81 percent of state residents support an increase in the minimum wage. "When we talk to people on the street, it’s a gut reaction," Bonime says of the canvassing conducted by the WFP. "We’ve been door-knocking, talking to people outside of libraries and grocery stores, and people support this. The statistics are true."

But Senate Major Leader Bruno maintains New York should wait for federal action on the issue. Bruno spokesperson Mark Hansen says the senator supports the increase, "but feels it would be most appropriate" if the change were made at the federal level. Hansen did imply, however, that should the federal government take no action by the time the state prepares to conclude its legislative session, Senator Bruno will support a vote on the measure.

"We hope that this is going to be the year that Bruno allows it to go to the floor," says Bonime of the $5.15 Is Not Enough Coalition.

Some proponents of the wage hike aren’t satisfied, however. The push for an increase is now a five-year-old campaign and results are long overdue, they say. "We want Bruno to stop stalling and allow families to make ends meet. We want to tell him: ‘Don’t wait for the feds,’" says Horn. "We really think this is not a very big thing to ask."

At Neighbors Together, where visitors will soon line up to fill their plates and choose a Ruby Red apple from a basket at one end of a food counter, Ed Fowler tinkers with a new copy machine installed that morning in the closet he and two full-time volunteers share as the organization’s headquarters. Penny, who runs the kitchen, wants to know if things are ready to go for the lunch rush. A thin man who looks like he could be in his seventies opens the screen door and starts to step inside. "Ten minutes," Penny tells him, and he returns to the sidewalk.

"You do the math," says Fowler. "The current minimum wage is just untenable for people living in New York City."


Marjory Garrison


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2004

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