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In 2016, Louisiana Should Raise the Minimum Wage

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that things have been getting more expensive (the notable exception, of course, being gasoline). If you live in New Orleans or another larger city, like I do, you may have found your rent going up over the past few years.

For some of us, this is a bit of a frustration; others may have to budget a few nicer things out of their lives. Still some others, who make lower wages, are forced to make the unthinkable decision – do I pay my electricity bill or pay for my medication? Do I sell my car? Do I move my children into a neighborhood that is further away from their school, one that puts them at a risk of dying by a stray bullet?

These are some of the decisions that those making minimum wage often have to consider. As 29 other states plus the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wage beyond the paltry $7.25 an hour, Louisiana is one of five states that still lacks any minimum wage law. (Two other states have a minimum wage lower than the federal, which means that employers still must pay the federal minimum wage, and the other fourteen have a minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage).

Governor John Bel Edwards proposed, in his campaign, a modest minimum wage increase to $8.50 an hour. This is a policy change desperately needed in Louisiana. It may even be more needed here than in the 21 other states who haven’t raised their minimum wages.

According to the United States Census Bureau, Louisiana had the third highest poverty rate in the country in 2014, just lower than Mississippi and the District of Columbia; we fell there from the seventh highest spot in 2010. Furthermore, Louisiana has a far greater cost of living than Mississippi. In fact, Louisiana is ranked about 30th in the country for cost of living (or 31st, depending on the study), while Mississippi has the lowest cost of living. Many of the states that rival Louisiana in cost of living have higher minimum wages, including Illinois (28th lowest), West Virginia (26th lowest), and Florida (24th lowest). We can do better.

And this does not take into consideration the higher cost of living in cities like New Orleans and the fact that prices usually naturally inflate each year. Without a cost of living adjustment on the minimum wage (which Louisiana and many other states lack), the real value of that wage actually shrinks every year.

Meanwhile, Birmingham, Alabama just recently became the first state in the Deep South to pass a higher local minimum wage. In fact, the City of New Orleans, after a ballot measure receiving 63 percent of the vote in 2002, enacted a general minimum wage that would have been $1 higher than the federal minimum, but it was struck down by the Louisiana Supreme Court, after business groups rallied against it as unconstitutional.

Twelve states, including Louisiana, since then have adopted “preemption laws” that expressly prohibit cities from raising their minimum wages higher than that of the state; that law was signed by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2012. These laws come from the model legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—a right-wing group run by industry leaders that pushes conservative, pro-business legislation onto the state law books. But why shouldn’t localities get to adjust their wage, when it is so obvious that some cities are far more costly to live in than the rest of the state?

There are a lot of unsupported claims floating about the internet about the minimum wage, and I’m not an economist; amidst the myriad websites arguing for one side or another, it can be hard to discern the truth. So here are some minimum wage myths and facts, issued by none other than your federal government:

  • Q: “Won’t minimum wage hurt employment?”
  • A: Actually, independent economists (600 of them, including 7 Nobel Peace Prize winners) across the country have shown “little to no” negative effect on employment by increasing the minimum wage. They actually found that it could have a stimulative effect on the economy by reducing turnover, which lowers costs for training and hiring.
  • Q: “But what about small businesses?”
  • A: Three out of five small business owners actually support a gradual raise of the minimum wage to $12. They say it would boost local spending which would in turn stimulate the economy.
  • Q: “Why should we pay high schoolers that kind of money?”
  • A: For the most part, they aren’t high schoolers – they are adults, trying to support their families. Eighty-nine percent of the beneficiaries from a federal minimum wage increase are over 20 years old; fifty-six percent are women.

Something else I’ve heard argued goes along these lines: Why should we encourage people to “be lazy” and work low-end jobs by raising the minimum wage?

They are working to provide for their families. If you want to make an argument about laziness, you might want to look somewhere other than a place of business. We don’t live in an economy where everyone can work their way up. A business necessarily has far more support staff than managers. Plus, part of the reason that people stay at the bottom is because the jobs simply don’t pay enough, which encourages turnover (see above). If you simply cannot financially support your family by “working your way up” from a low-paying job, which could take years, you have to look somewhere else.

Minimum wage workers make and serve our food, they clean our facilities, they stock our stores; they do important work. Individuals (and their families) do not deserve to live in poverty because they took a job we decided was less important.

Louisiana has a budget problem, as I’ve said before. It may get worse before it gets better. We want to encourage citizens to get an education and skills so that they can earn higher wages, yet we are gutting the schools that provide these skills. We cannot have it both ways, or our people will fall further into poverty and despair.

Reflections on the Anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

It’s time to talk about one of Louisiana’s bottom-ranking statistics: the pay disparity between men and women. You may already know that, on average in the US, women make 79% of what men make, but in Louisiana it’s much worse than that. In 2014, the median earnings for women in Louisiana were $31,586, compared to men in Louisiana, who took home $48,382. That means that here, women actually earn 65% of what men make, putting us 51st out of all states plus the District of Columbia.

Here is why this persistent problem is so detrimental to the wellbeing of our state and its people and why gender pay parity would go a long way toward improving our state’s outcomes.

First, Louisiana ranks close to the bottom on the rate of poverty for female-headed families. In Louisiana, 47.6% of families with a female as head of the household lived in poverty. That’s nearly one in two families.

If this were looked at as just a statistic with no other implications, it may be easier to ignore. But there are far-reaching consequences of this high poverty rate among female-headed families, consequences which bear negatively on our state. So what does this statistic actually mean?

In most families, there are children. That means that nearly half of the children in Louisiana with female heads are growing up in poverty. And with poverty come all of its attendant circumstances: lower school performance, poorer health, higher rates of substance abuse, and greater exposure to crime. Additionally, it means these children are more likely to stay poor throughout their lives. When you stay poor, you cannot contribute to the economy, and you rely on government assistance for meeting your basic needs. Poverty hurts our state’s bottom line, and if businesses were paying their fair share, the state wouldn’t have to foot the bill. In fact, if the wage gap were eliminated in Louisiana, women could afford basic necessities – food, rent, and utilities, for example – on their own much more easily. And being able to buy goods and services is what keeps an economy running.

In a longitudinal view, then, you can see how the chasm between men and women’s earnings in Louisiana is actually hurting our state. Single-parent households are more likely to be headed by a woman in this country, and single parents have to work. If these mothers could be making the same amount as men do for the same work, imagine what kind of effect that would have on the child poverty rate in this state, which in Louisiana is 27.9% (49th in the U.S. out of 51).

I’ve heard the oft-cited defenses and explanations for the gender pay disparity: People say women “just choose” jobs that pay less, or they ask for raises less frequently. And some conservatives bemoan the prospect of forcing gender equality down the throats of business owners and CEOs.

Some of these factors, to be sure, contribute to the wage gap. But even when you run the numbers, controlling for variables such as occupation, experience, and education, over 40 percent of the pay gap remains unexplained. Even worse, another study found that mothers were recommended for lower starting salaries, viewed as less competent, and less likely to be hired. Although we can and should question the wisdom of a society that pays traditionally female “pink collar” jobs less in general, the simple fact remains that women in other sectors of employment are still discriminated against and paid less.

Conservatives in Louisiana have defeated similar bills in the legislature, citing the devastating effect it could have on our economy and the fact that federal laws already protect women from pay discrimination. Of course, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry—which, we should recall, gave a ringing endorsement of David Vitter for governor—argues that it would hurt Louisiana businesses by opening the doors to more lawsuits.

The fact remains, however, that pay discrimination is already illegal in every state, under federal law. So we must ask ourselves, if LABI and other conservatives are opposed to a law giving women the ability to sue businesses more, would it not be denying them the justice they deserve?

Nearly every other state in the union has law prohibiting sex-based pay discrimination in the private sector, and these laws provide for a cause of action (lawsuit) or employer liabilities when the law is broken. Out of the other states that lack such a law, it seems like most of them are also near the bottom in pay equality. Utah, for example, is one spot above Louisiana, at 50th. Alabama is ranked 46th. It’s not the rule, but it’s a compelling correlation. 

Louisiana has seen sluggish population growth, even considering the losses incurred from Katrina. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people tell me they have moved because they can make a better living elsewhere. Certainly, if a struggling mother can relocate her family to a state where she is likely to get paid more for the same work, it’s not inconceivable that she would do the same.

If the economic and social costs of our pay gap are not compelling enough, I finally ask you to consider a moralistic perspective. As another columnist on this page has noted, even Pope Francis has decried the injustices of pay discrimination against women.

But I ask you to just think of the children of this state. If we fought pay discrimination harder on the state level, might a few frivolous lawsuits be filed? For the sake of argument, suppose that a few would. They wouldn’t likely get very far in court. Are we willing to deny working women – who are so often mothers – the ability to pay for food, medical care, education, clothing, and other necessities, all in the name of fighting the chimera of fraud? I, for one, think the children and families of this state deserve more than 65 cents on the dollar.

John Bel Edwards is the leader Louisiana needs right now

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’re likely aware that starting January 1, 2016, some 31,000 Louisiana residents will be kicked out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. In the weeks since the announcement from the Department of Children and Family Services, the move by the Jindal administration to trim the program has been decried by Governor-elect John Bel Edwards, protested by workers’ justice organizations, and even blasted by moderate to conservative- leaning editorial boards. It is unconscionable that Gov. Jindal would use his final days in office to make life more difficult for poor people, but not surprising given the contempt he has shown towards the poor throughout his eight years in office.

The federal government offers states with high unemployment rates a waiver of the federal work requirement for able bodied adults without dependents. Louisiana has qualified and applied for this waiver for the past 19 years due to our high unemployment rate. Our current waiver, which allows some 31,000 individuals to access SNAP food assistance, will expire today. Instead of renewing the waiver and food assistance for folks looking for work, the Jindal administration declined to re-apply for the waiver.

This decision reimposes the three-month time limit for all unemployed, able-bodied people with no dependents, meaning that those individuals who have been unemployed and job searching for a period greater than three months will be kicked out of the SNAP program between January 1 and when Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards reverses Gov. Jindal’s decision after he takes office on January 11. At that time, the chronically underfunded and under-staffed Department of Children and Family Services will have to begin the treacherous work of re-enrolling those tens of thousands of Louisianians in SNAP. It’s unfortunate that so much of the department’s resources will have to go toward this effort, and it will also heavily burden the enrollees, who will have to reapply, starting the entire application process over.

Louisiana needs this waiver. In recent years, Louisianians have been much more likely to experience food insecurity and/or hunger than residents of most other US states, with 16.5 percent of households going without enough food in the years 2011-2013. Nationally, this puts us in 43rd place. In contrast, Louisianians faired better than residents of most other US states on average from 2008-2010, when only 12.6 percent of households experienced food insecurity and our state ranked 15th in the nation. The difference may not seem like much, but it amounts to as many as 185,523 people newly experiencing hunger due to a lack of money or resources.

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s unemployment rate of 6.3 percent is much higher than the national average, falling behind only four states and Washington, DC as of November 2015. As was pointed out by Think Progress, among others, sixteen Louisiana parishes, as well as the city of Monroe, have been designated “Labor Surplus Areas” through the end of 2016. A “Labor Surplus Area” is one in which job searchers outnumber available jobs, resulting in high unemployment and underemployment.This directly counters the false narrative spun by Governor Jindal assuring all of us that his administration has created tens of thousands of jobs and ensured opportunity for everyday Louisianians over the eight years of his two terms. In our state, this is compounded by the decline in the price of oil, which will likely continue to be disastrous for our economy.

It is not as though our hands are tied, however. Unemployment poses a real challenge to Louisiana’s incoming administration, but not an insurmountable one. An area in which the incoming administration could make a real difference combating unemployment and underemployment would be much needed area job placement and training programs that would help to put people back to work so they would no longer need SNAP. Until these programs are improved, however, we cannot just allow people to go hungry.

SNAP, unlike almost all other social safety net programs, gives no credit towards the requirement to job-searching. So unemployed and underemployed Louisianians who diligently apply for jobs but are unsuccessful in securing one during their three month SNAP allowance are completely out of luck, at least until this waiver decision has been reversed. Obviously, taking away their ability to purchase food does nothing to change Louisiana’s current unemployment situation. The decision will only further burden some of the poorest people in our state. Data from the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that on average, this group has a monthly income of approximately 19 percent of the poverty line —about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014 — and in most cases does not qualify for any other social safety net program. This makes this particular subset of SNAP users much poorer than the average SNAP user, whose household incomes is at 58.5 percent of the poverty line.

We commend Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards for his advocacy on behalf of those set to lose their SNAP assistance and for his promise to reinstate the waiver. For those living in poverty and for those who are struggling with hunger, John Bel Edwards is the leader Louisiana needs right now. It is long past time for a leader who shows compassion for those in need, a leader who will end the years of neglect and contempt towards the poor. And maybe, just maybe, we can start on a true path of ending the legacy of poverty in our state.

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8/29/05—8/29/15: “Progress without equity is injustice”

The title of this post comes from KatrinaTruth.org, a project of the Advancement Project and Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. Please visit their website for more information on racial equity and recovery efforts. 

Just a few hours before the storm was expected to make landfall, my family packed up our cars with little more than ourselves and the two dogs and headed west on I-10. We had never evacuated before. Hurricanes usually meant a few days off from school and if we were lucky, a good foot of rainwater to play in on our street, which ran alongside the 17th Street Canal.

When the CNN footage showed water up to the train tracks overpass just before the I-10W West End / Florida exit, my parents told us that our neighborhood was underwater, but I was sure they were wrong. It felt like only a few hours before that my mother was putting her foot down, refusing to evacuate, while my father pleaded for her to come with us. Three months later, I stood in our yard and in front of me was everything and nothing at all. Black water had turned books to pulp, destroyed photographs, and spawned mold from the floor all the way to the upstairs ceiling. But our loss was small compared to the trauma and loss experienced by so many families.

In the days after the storm, while we sat on the floor of a distant relative’s living room and watched the footage, thousands of people were waiting for help that came days too late. Survivors helped rescue their neighbors and friends while the federal government showed indifference to the city that was at the time, over 70% black. The whole nation watched in horror while families suffered in attics and on rooftops with no water or food. Law enforcement officers with the Gretna Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and the Crescent City Connection Police Department blockaded the Crescent City Connection and fired shots to prevent terrified New Orleanians from fleeing from a city 80% covered in water.

Orleans Parish prisoners were abandoned and forced to spend days in sewage water up to their chests with no food, potable water, or ventilation before being evacuated to an I-10 overpass. Children in the Office of Juvenile Justice Youth Center were left in water up to their necks for days before being rescued by adult prisoners. Four NOPD officers with assault weapons open-fired on the Bartholomew family while they walked to a grocery store, fatally wounding two and injuring four others. Governor Kathleen Blanco sent the National Guard in, not to help assist with rescue efforts, but rather to strengthen law enforcement. She told the media, “They have M-16s, and they’re locked and loaded … These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” Chaos and fear at the hands of the National Guard, the police, and armed vigilantes permeated New Orleans for weeks.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and yesterday former President George W. Bush was dancing at Warren Easton High School. Ten years ago, 1800+ people in Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes died in one of the most catastrophic disasters this nation has ever seen, tens of thousands were displaced, many of whom never got to come home, and later today there will be a parade.

In the years following the storm, public housing was traded in for mixed-income developments, and many low-income New Orleanians were pushed to the edges of the city by the rising cost of living. Road Home money was denied to thousands of black homeowners. The city’s public school teachers were all fired (well, that’s one way to disband a labor union), and the school system was overhauled. Today, much of the Lower Ninth still sits empty, and economic development has been concentrated in more affluent neighborhoods.

So if those are your markers of “recovery” and “resilience,” you’re celebrating the decisions that have directly contributed to our “recovery” leaving behind thousands of lower income, mostly black families. There is still much work ahead of us before we can truly call New Orleans recovered. Because “progress without equity is injustice.”

However, we can be thankful that there are people and grassroots organizations doing the work to help all of New Orleans move forward and continue recovering. We all have the opportunity to support progressive change in New Orleans. Here are just a few places you can learn more:

  • Learn about the work of STAND with Dignity, a grassroots organization fighting for the power of the working poor, who recently organized and won the fight for a higher wage in New Orleans.
  • Read up about BreakOUT, an organization devoted to ending the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color.
  • Get connected with Gulf South Rising, a regional movement of coordinated actions and events to highlight the impact of the global climate crisis on the Gulf South (and go to one of their events between now and August 30).
  • Finally, head to KatrinaTruth.org to learn more about the inequity in our region’s recovery.