City, businesses can't afford costs of low-wage jobs
Guest column

Mark Santow
Special to The Spokesman-Review

The One Spokane Summit provided an opportunity to envision a new, equitable, and sustainable economy in the region, and Mayor John Powers should be commended for convening it. But we mustn't lose sight of poverty and equity, in favor of glittering visions of downtown development. The question isn't whether we want economic development -- we do. But what kind? There is a low road to prosperity, and a high road.

Ultimately, if the economic development of the Spokane region is to be sustainable, and broadly beneficial to all its citizens and neighborhoods, the issue of poverty must be addressed. And to address poverty, one must address wages, as many of the delegates at the Summit insisted.

A living wage law would be a very good start.

A variety of living wage laws have been enacted in the U.S. since 1994, by over 80 municipalities -- including Missoula and Portland. The basic idea is that elected officials should strive to use our tax dollars to create jobs which pay a wage high enough to lift a family out of poverty. Living wage ordinances hold companies profiting from public money accountable, by insisting that firms which are under contract with a city or which receive tax breaks and subsidies provide family and community-sustaining jobs.

More than 3,000 Spokane citizens signed a petition for such a law back in 1998, and the Spokane Human Rights Commission, in concert with a new group, Spokane Citizens for a Living Wage, has begun working on the issue again. More than 75 living wage campaigns are underway around the country, and most communities that have considered such a law have voted for it.

According to a poll by Jobs for the Future in early 2000, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that those who work full-time should be able to earn enough to keep their families out of poverty. For a growing number of Spokane families this is difficult. Wages here lag well behind state and national levels, while the cost of living is higher. The average annual wage for retail and service industry workers in Spokane -- half of all employees in the county is well below the amount needed to meet basic needs for a family of four, which the Spokane Regional Health District puts at a little over $25,000 a year (or about $12 an hour). Many workers hold down two jobs just to make ends meet. A living wage law will begin to address this.

Do living wage laws work? Studies indicate that they raise the wages of home health care workers, janitors, food service workers, security guards and others, with little cost in terms of business profits, jobs, or tax dollars.

And while the directly affected families benefit, so do the rest of us. One out of every five homes sold by Spokane realtors in recent months has been re-possessed. Families with living wage jobs are more able to get loans to buy (and keep) a home or start a business. Families that are able to meet their basic needs are more likely to be able to support their children's health and education. This means less demand on public assistance, on charities, on teachers, and on the police, which benefits all of us. It means more taxpayers. Extra dollars that these families receive from a living wage law will be spent locally, getting the roof fixed, buying a used car, purchasing a few more groceries -- generating revenues for small businesses, and quite possibly creating more jobs as a result.

As the old saying goes, money is like manure; it works best if you spread it around. Even the affected firms have benefited, through increases in morale and productivity, and decreases in employee turnover.

Poverty wage jobs are expensive, to all of us. It is a much better use of our public resources to create jobs which allow Spokane citizens to live in independence and dignity. There is nothing wrong with using subsidies and tax breaks to attract and keep employers. The problem is that they are usually offered without any demand for accountability with regard to wages or the number of jobs created. This "low road" to economic development promises nothing but further stagnation and suffering for most Spokane residents.

A "high road" approach to Spokane's future focuses on raising the living standards of average working families. A living wage law is a good first step on this road. It would also be a step toward fairness. And justice. And One Spokane.


•Mark Santow is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University and vice chair of the Spokane Human Rights Commission.


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