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Living Wage Is a Step in the Right Direction

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Last week, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced that a deal had been struck, amending New York City's living wage law to include more city residents. This is a meaningful step forward in the journey to establish living wages for all New Yorkers. Those who are most directly impacted by the legislation will see their hourly wages boosted by between $2.75 and $3.25, depending on whether the worker is entitled to health benefits. Other workers will benefit from the City establishing policy for maximizing living wage jobs at retail locations on city-subsidized development sites and the new fund created to incentivize living wage jobs. The sum total of this agreement is that it furthers the process of ensuring that the city's economic development programs deliver more quality jobs to New York City.

Some critics of the bill will argue that we are a long ways away from the policy proposal introduced by the Living Wage Coalition. This is true. The initial proposal would have protected all low-income workers who were employed by private sector beneficiaries of at least one million dollars in city subsidies. But that is no reason to be cynical. This legislation creates a progressive policy framework to raise the wages of low-income workers across the city and it does so at a crucial juncture.

A centerpiece of Mayor Bloomberg's economic development strategy has been the expansion of large retailers as a way of creating jobs for local residents. Unfortunately, these jobs tend to be part-time, low-wage, and lack benefits. According to a City University of New York and Retail Action Project study released this week, the median wage of retail workers is $9.50 per hour and 71 percent do not receive health benefits. Additionally, 34 percent of retail workers rely on government programs, like food stamps and Medicaid, to support themselves and their families, and the number of retail employees who are working part-time involuntarily has nearly doubled from 2006 to 2010. In other words, the City has committed to creating jobs, but not jobs with reasonable wages.

But the living wage isn't just about new jobs. For too long, too many New Yorkers have worked too many hours for less than a decent wage. They and their families have suffered because of it. Overworked parents make bad tutors for their children; underpaid workers make for tired, stressed out, and sometimes violent spouses. Fiscal insecurity burdens every member of a family and it does so not just for a day or week or month, but for years, decades, and sometimes generations. New York City businesses, especially those that receive city subsidies, can and must do something to alleviate the hardships faced by our city's poorest families. The Living Wage bill is the first step in a process that can ensure that this happens.

To the concern that a living wage would kill jobs in our city, I say that concern sets up a false dichotomy between wages and jobs. The truth is you cannot speak about one without the other. Employment is never enough for an individual or family. Each and every person seeks out a job that pays decently -- and for good reason. Like it or not, wages are as important as the air we breathe. They don't just buy us luxuries like iPods and new cars, or even essentials like food and shelter. Wages buy us and our children opportunities for a better life. That is why Mayor Bloomberg's comment equating the living wage with failed Soviet Union polices was so offensive. The reality is this: give a worker a decent wage and you give them and their families a shot at success later in life. Give workers pennies and cents for an honest day's work and you might as well snatch the air from their lungs because life becomes burdensome and downright inhumane.

The mayor has since changed his position, pledging his support for a state proposal that would raise the NY minimum wage. Growing support for measures like these and real living wages have laid important groundwork for a more comprehensive living wage policy in the coming years, and I hope will serve as an example to cities throughout the U.S. that profitability and fair pay are not mutually exclusive. Dr. King famously remarked, "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." It appears that New York City is on its way.