This past Saturday was World Homeless Day, and it was also the birthday of Right 2 Dream Too, the well maintained and self-managed tent city in downtown Portland that has done more for the houseless community in four years, and done it with way fewer resources, than the City’s 10 Year Plan and millions of dollars spent could ever claim. It seems appropriate then to take a look at houselessness in Oregon and ask what a statewide $15 minimum wage would do to help alleviate the problem.
According to the most recent point-in-time count, on any given night there are some 4,000 houseless men, women, and children sleeping on the streets of Portland. Even more startling is that according to a 2013 report there are 38,000 children throughout Oregon who are considered homeless. That’s the fifth highest rate of child homelessness in the country.
New Seasons Market announced that it will raise the minimum starting wage at all of its stores to $12 per hour in January 2016, a $2 increase from their current base pay of $10 per hour. ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria in Portland also announced that they are raising their minimum wage to $12.50 in January 2016, and will increase that to $15 by 2021.
According to a press release sent out yesterday, New Seasons is working with a number of other businesses to call “for state elected leaders to take action in 2016 on a minimum wage policy that meets the needs of Oregon’s diverse communities.” Among those other businesses are Grand Central Bakery, HOTLIPS Pizza, Looptworks, Neil Kelly, ¿Por Qué No?, The Joinery, Better World Club, Morel Ink, Chef’s Table, FMYI, and Grain & Gristle.
New Season’s CEO Wendy Collie stated, “The wage that supports self-sufficiency in urban areas such as Portland could be $15 per hour, while the differences in cost of living in rural communities could make the same wage unsustainable.”
We applaud New Seasons and these other businesses for committing to raising wages, for actively supporting the work to change state policy on the minimum wage, and for recognizing the need for $15 in Portland. However, while we agree that Oregon communities are diverse in terms of cost of living, we wish to emphasize that $15 is not just what is needed in Portland, but rather what is need throughout our entire state.
The Oregonian’s recent article shed’s strange light on the Legislative Revenue Office (LRO) analysis of the effects of a minimum wage increase and the “benefits cliff.” The analysis looks at a single parent with two children who gets a childcare tax subsidy. It states that while at a $12 or $13 minimum wage these families fall off the benefits cliff (meaning they actually end up losing money each month after accounting for the public benefits they will lose as a result of having a higher income), a $15 minimum wage leaves these families with about $50 per month extra after accounting for the public assistance benefits lose.
The Oregonian’s article come with a massive, super-sized font headline about ONLY having $49 extra with $15 minimum wage, as if this is a reason to leave the minimum wage in Oregon at a poverty level. The article focuses entirely on the grossly hyperbolized notion that if the minimum wage goes up people will actually lose money.
The article misses the real point entirely, it fails to come to the glaringly obvious conclusion that a $15 minimum actually solves the benefits cliff problem. It puts people on top of the cliff, while anything less leaves families falling off the cliff. With a $15 minimum wage working people in Oregon will have the dignity of being able to provide adequate housing, food, and health insurance for their families without having to rely on taxpayers for assistance. It even leaves these families with a little left over at the end of the month. This is important, because working people deserve dignity. No one who works should live in poverty.
The University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) just released a report addressing this exactly issue of Oregonians on public assistance. The report shows that taxpayers in Oregon spend over $1.7 billion per year to subsidize the poverty wages of massively profitable corporations by paying for the public assistance that goes to those corporations’ low-wage workers. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hr will reduce the amount that taxpayers are spending to corporate low wages. We can then use that freed up money to fund public education, or provide affordable housing, or help fund single payer healthcare for all Oregonians.
The LERC report also found that 400,000 workers in our state currently work in low-wage jobs, and that 197,000 of them received public assistance. That means that there are hundreds of thousands of working Oregonians who make less than $15/hr and DID NOT receive public assistance. They would benefit directly from an increase in wages. For these workers the benefits cliff does not exist. They will have much more than $49 extra at the end of the month when we increase the minimum wage $15/hr.
What the LRO report shows is that $15 is the right number for Oregon’s minimum wage. Families can’t survive on $9.25. A $12 or $13 minimum wage is still a poverty wage here in our state, and would leave families falling off the benefits cliff. Only a $15 minimum wage is enough to prevent families from falling off the cliff while giving working Oregonians the dignity of earning a wage that allows them to provide for their families. Oregon needs a raise. Oregon needs $15 Now.
Don’t Shoot Portland has endorsed a $15 minimum wage and not just for the City of Portland. Responding to today’s news that all Multnomah County employees have won a $15 minimum wage, Don’t Shoot Portland organizer Teressa Raiford said, “That’s a great step, but we need to make sure we win $15 for the whole state, for all of Oregon.”
Don’t Shoot Portland has shown a tremendous ability to harness the disillusioned outrage of a new generation of civil rights activists in Portland, to draw relevant connections between Ferguson and police brutality and killings here locally in Portland, and translate it all into powerful public action and discourse. It is worth our time to explore how the problem of systemic racism and police oppression of communities of color goes hand in hand with the problem of systemic poverty and income inequality.
Racism, racial profiling, and police oppression are serious problems that are faced daily by black communities throughout Oregon and the U.S. From the earliest days of American law when black people where legally deemed the property of white men, through Jim Crow and Oregon’s exclusion laws, down to the prison-industrial complex today the system was, in fact, never meant to serve and protect black communities. Today, one unarmed black person is shot and killed by police every 28 hours in America.
The militarized police forces in this country are used to protect corporate wealth and power. This is certainly true when it comes to keeping communities of color in poverty and prison, and it is true when it comes to breaking strikes and squelching first amendment expression. The racism and systemic problems that allow police to get away with murdering unarmed black men are on and the same as the racism and systemic problems that allow massive corporations and a few mostly white individuals to amass and hoard vast amounts of wealth while communities of color live in poverty.
It is no secret that poverty is one of the major causes of violence and crime. Many of these “crimes” are nothing more than crimes of survival. Crimes people commit because they are hungry and desperate, they have kids to feed, and they can’t survive on the poverty wages offered by the American economy. So they seek black market and other opportunities to provide for themselves and their families. Like Eric Garner selling single cigarettes on a street corner in New York City. Now he is dead.
When talking about how these issues intersect, Teressa Raiford said it best and simply when she said, “We all know that we aren’t going to end violence unless we end poverty.”
When it comes to poverty, communities of color are disproportionately represented as a result of the racism that has been built into the American economic and legal system. For example, white people make up 88% of Oregon’s population, and only 15% of white people in Oregon live in poverty according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy. On the other hand, while black people make up a disturbingly small 2% of Oregon’s population, a staggering 41% of black Oregonians live in poverty. This shows that just like police oppression, violence and murder, systemic poverty is a serious issue for communities of color. Systemic racism (a tool for dividing the working class) in a country who’s laws were never meant to protect and serve the black community is at the heart of both the problems of poverty and police violence in that community.
Poverty is not an issue of laziness, or a matter of a lack of skills or education. Those families and parents work hard to try and provide for their families. It is simply a matter of a system built upon the fact that a few people can get disgustingly rich only if the masses are either in slavery, or are paid poverty wages.
In the same way, communities of color are kept in poverty and in prison because our unjust economic system needs low-wage workers, it needs soldiers, its needs cannon fodder. And so communities of color are hounded and oppressed by militarized police forces. They are shoveled down a school-to-prison pipelinethat ensures our prison-industrial complex is continuously fed new slave labor for companies that use prisoners as a labor force. Many of these companies, such as Target and Macy’s, are among the same companies that are guilty of paying poverty wages to their non-prison labor force. It is also ensured, through background checks and laws allowing businesses to discriminate against felons, that once out of prison people remain in poverty and are unable to find good jobs and move up the economic ladder. They are relegated to poverty wage jobs.
If all these problems are systemic, then the solution to these problems is also systemic. We must Fight for $15 to help alleviate the pressure of poverty on communities of color and all other communities suffering from systemic income inequality. We must fight to end police brutality and racial profiling, to end a racist system in which police can indiscriminately kill unarmed black people and get away with it.
We need to join together, unite across movements into one mass movement to create the systemic changes necessary for real justice to be ensured. We need a new civil rights era with people engaging in mass protests, strikes, and walkouts to demand justice: economic justice, racial justice, social justice, environmental justice…justice for all!