The modern paradox of life without a living wage
By Lyndsey Lyman
The federal government said that a single person living alone is in poverty with an income of $10,830 a year or lower. That’s about $30 per day. The line for a family of three is $18, 310 a year—about $50 a day for food, groceries, bills, clothing, rent or mortgage and transportation.
It’s obvious that even people living above this line are struggling financially, to the point where some may wonder why the Federal Poverty Guideline, the income level at which a family is considered to be living in poverty, is so low.
James Brown, the president of the United Way of Tompkins County, said defining the contours of poverty is never cut-and-dry. Even if you’re considered to be above the federal poverty line, you’re still not in the clear.
“You may be at the poverty level for a family of two or a family of four—you may meet that number—but the reality of what it costs to live a safe and secure life with the necessary resources may still be beyond your means,” Brown said. “The poverty level, the way it’s defined, is somewhat artificial.”
Brown said that even people living with twice the poverty income are still considered to be at risk for poverty. This means that person is one “major incident”—a car breaking down, a child getting sick—away from slipping below the line.
The Local Level
How widespread is poverty in the Ithaca area? John Ward, director of homeless services at the Tompkins County American Red Cross, said Red Cross’ shelter serves 20 to 30 clients— with a total of 390 overnight stays per month. The Friendship Center, which is open daily and provides meals and services to anyone in need, sees about 55 to 65 people each day, Ward said.
The Jungle is Ithaca’s controversial “tent city” on the west side of town, which received a lot of media attention last year because of its location on private and city property. The Jungle also has an increased number of inhabitants recently, according to Brown. In addition, Brown said, more people are struggling to find not just housing, but food.
“We know that there’s been a tremendous increase in requests for food from the food pantries, and that’s across the county,” Brown said. “What the providers in the food pantries have seen is that people who have never sought assistance with food to make ends meet for their families—people who have, in the past, been contributors—are now there for the first time.”
The Housing Bidding War
Regardless, housing is still a major issue for those struggling financially in Ithaca. According to Ithaca College junior Rebecca Coffman, who is currently working on a documentary on poverty in Ithaca, one cause of the housing struggle is over-enrollment by Ithaca College and Cornell University. Both institutions have been enrolling more students than they can house on their respective campuses in the last few years, and the institutions have subsequently given incentives to students to move off campus, Coffman said. This has caused an increase in rent by some landlords, who know many students are willing to pay more than community members for their housing, and many apartments and houses in the area are then moved out of community members’ price ranges. They’re forced to live in the outlying areas of Ithaca, such as Dryden and Lansing, and commute to the city for work.
In fact, COMPASS II 2.0, United Way of Tompkins County’s report on community assets and needs, state that 43.8 percent of respondents say public transportation is inadequate. This poses a lot of issues for people who can’t afford a car and must rely on public transportation, which isn’t always on schedule or available during the necessary time of day, such as after the late shift.
Brown said the problem is more complex than a simple increase of price by landlords.
“I think it’s a complicated issue,” Brown said. While he said many issues affect the housing situation in Ithaca, including “the age of the housing stock,” there are many to consider.
Still, he says, college students living off campus is one of the many factors.
“You can’t deny just a clear observation that increased demand as a result of students living in the community will have an impact on prices and, to some extent, the availability of quality apartments and homes,” he said.
Brown also noted that college students and community members alike can be priced out of different types of housing due to this demand.
Solving the Unsolvable
With all of these issues facing people living in or very close to poverty, it’s difficult to know where to start in helping community members rise back above that line. The Tompkins County Workers’ Center’s Living Wage Campaign is one place to begin.
The Living Wage Campaign is one of the Workers’ Center’s biggest initiatives to help all county residents, including employers and employees. The living wage differs from place to place around the country depending on costs of housing, food and other essentials. To determine the wage for Tompkins County, a committee of Workers’ Center employees work together with the Alternatives Federal Credit Union to develop a bi-yearly Living Wage Study, which shows the minimum wage necessary in Tompkins County for a full-time worker.
Linda Holzbaur, Tompkins County Workers’ Center community organizer, said earning a living wage is essential.
“We at the Tompkins County Workers’ Center believe that all workers should be able to adequately support themselves,” she said. “You can’t do that on $7.25 an hour and no benefits.”
The living wage benefits not just the employees, but the rest of society as well, Holzbaur said. There are hidden costs to the low prices consumers see at larger corporations. Many “big box” employees who earn minimum wage are qualified to receive food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance. While the Workers’ Center supports these programs, they also see them as unnecessary, if everyone were able to earn a living wage.
“We’re certainly not against those programs because we believe that we’re a rich enough country that everybody should be living at a certain basic level where they have access to good food, and they have access to health care,” Holzbaur said. “However, when we are patronizing a ‘big box’ store that’s only paying people minimum wage, we’re making up for those cheap prices by paying in other areas.”
By not covering up the hidden costs of running a business, consumers can pay for the full cost upfront, which could ideally eliminate the need for a lot of government assistance programs.
The Virtues of Independence
The Workers’ Center carries a running list of their Certified Living Wage employers, of which there are currently 62 in Tompkins County.
One of these employers is Buffalo Street Books, owned by Gary Weissbrot, who is very passionate about paying his employees the living wage.
Weissbrot said “big box” bookstore employees receiving welfare or living without healthcare while working full time is “shocking, considering the profit margin these places make. Their argument—that this is the way they keep prices down—is bunk. They keep prices low by taking advantage of people. My belief, and this goes for my store, is if the people working here can’t make a living wage, then the store is not making enough money and should close. Simple as that.”
Weissbrot said he also likes the Workers’ Center effort with the Living Wage Campaign because he isn’t always as aware of inflation as he would like to be, so he uses the bi-annual announcement of the updated living wage as a benchmark to make sure he’s staying on track.
Ithaca College writing professor Fred A. Wilcox grew up in poverty in the Midwest and lived homeless for six years in New York City as a young adult. He said people need to have an open discussion about the vast disparity between socioeconomic classes in order to truly solve the poverty issue in Ithaca and in America in general. However, he doesn’t think it is likely to take place any time soon.
“Are we going to have that discussion? No,” Wilcox said. “We have a lot of nice, liberal, caring, well-minded people who—and I don’t blame them—are going to say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that, because if we do, we’re going to have to ask some fundamental questions about this town and city that I love so much or this country that I love so much; that is, why do I have it all, when other people have nothing?’”
___________________________________Lyndsey Lyman is a sophomore culture and communication major with a crush on living wage employers. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.