Summer Wood

Shortly after the City-County Council"s Rules and Public Policy Committee voted unanimously to table the proposed living wage ordinance earlier this month, WIBC reported somewhat gleefully that the living wage movement in Indianapolis was dead. The report couldn"t have been further from the truth. Although the proposed ordinance - to set the minimum wage paid to city, county, contracted workers and those at firms that receive sizable tax breaks from the city at $10 an hour with benefits, rising to $15 over a five-year period - has been set aside for the time being, the living wage movement continues to gain currency and credibility, not only in Indianapolis, but across the nation.

When the first living wage ordinance was enacted in Baltimore in 1994, supporters pushed the proposal through on the grounds that it was morally imperative to ensure that people working full-time for a city or county should earn enough money to support themselves, and provide a decent standard of living for their families. But now that more than 80 municipalities and universities have enacted living wages, data is becoming available to bolster the big-hearted ethical argument with cold, hard numbers.

In March of this year, Michigan State University economics professor David Neumark released a study of 36 cities with living wage laws. Though he undertook the research as a skeptic of living wages, Neumark found that any job losses as a result of increased wages were more than offset by the decrease in poverty among working families.

How would Neumark"s findings play out in the workplace? Say that one parent in a low-income, two-parent family has to work two jobs to keep food on the table: During the day, Mom works as a clerk processing court case records, and on the weekends, she works on the janitorial crew that cleans City Hall. Then the city enacts a living wage. Perhaps the weekend job downsizes its staff and lets her go, but the wage raise she receives on her day job is enough to help the family make ends meet. Mom now has more time to spend with her kids, and maybe even take a Saturday morning class at a community college.

University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin was commissioned by the city of Los Angeles in 1996 to study the effects of its $9.46 hourly living wage. In a book-length study published in 1998, Pollin found that none of the predictions of living wage naysayers had come to pass: Unemployment among less-skilled workers did not increase; small businesses were not placed at a disadvantage; and the ordinance did not discourage businesses from locating in L.A. or bidding on city contracts. "The impact [of a living wage] on businesses and governments is very small," Pollin recently told Time. "If there were any evidence otherwise, it would have shut down the living wage movement a long time ago."

It"s true that many living wage ordinances were passed during the late-1990s economic boom, when budget surpluses abounded and there seemed no harm in trickling down a little of that unprecedented prosperity to the poor. With our state and city now facing shortfalls and cutbacks, passing a living wage in Indianapolis and the other Indiana cities considering it - Bloomington, Lafayette and South Bend - will certainly be an uphill battle. But with the bulk of budget cuts going to the social services safety net that many working poor families rely on, ending their dependence on taxpayer-funded services would lessen the hidden socio-economic costs of substandard wages, both to the city - in the form of decreased demand for government assistance, and increased worker retention - and its employees.

Many of the Midwest cities Indianapolis competes with to attract new business - including Cleveland, Chicago, Dayton, Detroit and St. Louis - have already passed living wage laws. Why do we find ourselves lagging behind on yet another national economic trend?

Perhaps it"s our fervent Hoosier faith in the concept of meritocracy: Work hard, and you"ll do fine. But for low-wage, full-time workers who find themselves relying on food stamps or teetering on the edge of homelessness, meritocracy is a myth. Local opponents of living wage such as the Chamber of Commerce argue that the jobs in question are unskilled, and do not merit higher wages. Talk to some low-wage municipal workers about what they do, and you will quickly find that no job is truly unskilled: safely delivering a busload of children to school, caring for the very young or the very old, collecting trash, processing criminal records, dispatching emergency personnel, cleaning the City-County Building after the council goes home at night. We rely on these "unskilled" workers and many others like them to keep our city running smoothly.

The local living wage movement, spearheaded by the Community, Faith and Labor Coalition, has prompted a public dialogue about what we, as citizens and taxpayers, owe our city"s lowest-paid workers. Councilor Robert Massie has promised the council will look into other ways of addressing the problem of the city"s working poor; indeed, a wage study to be released this fall is expected to suggest the city raise wages to a $9 an hour minimum. It"s not a living wage, but it"s a step in the right direction. Until Indianapolis joins the rest of the country in paying municipal workers what they"re worth, the living wage movement will remain alive and well.

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