The call for a living wage
Originally published in the Hawaii Catholic Herald, April 3, 2019
Dawn Morais Webster
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
“The current minimum wage ($10.10 an hour) is a struggle wage; it’s a wage that inhibits people from providing for their very basic needs. When people are working multiple jobs in order to feed and clothe themselves, find it difficult to pay their bills working full-time at a decent entry-level job, or are living in a home with several generations of family members because the cost of living in Hawaii is far higher than what they are being paid, a living wage needs to be reevaluated. Raising the minimum wage in Hawaii is not just necessary, it is vital.”
These are the words of 23-year old Kilinahemalie Ling, who will graduate in December from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She has paid her bills, while studying, with the help of a slightly higher than minimum wage job. But looming on the horizon is the intimidating reality of loan repayments. She testified recently in support of raising the minimum wage to a true living wage. Her words are a cry for help. A cry that the Catholic social justice tradition tells us we have a moral obligation to respond to.
Citing that tradition, Eva Andrade, executive director of the Hawaii Catholic Conference, reminded lawmakers that “raising the minimum wage is about dignity and it is about justice. It is clear from more than a century of Catholic teaching that work is at the heart of the social question, at the heart of human dignity. We must, as a society, endorse and support the potential benefits and freedoms of a market economy; but this effort must be oriented toward protecting human life and dignity, and advancing the common good.”
She reminded Hawaii legislators that “increasing the minimum wage to a level that reflects the real economic reality faced by families today would go far in building an economy worthy of the humans that operate it.”
Betty Lou Larson of Catholic Charities Hawaii testified to the way the economy is not working for the most vulnerable. “They are often barely able to avoid homelessness, or are working several jobs to juggle the basic expenses of their families and are unable to spend time raising their children,” she said.
Addressing the fears that have been raised about the impact on small businesses, she pointed out that “low-income workers spend their income on basic living expenses and higher wages would be put right back into local businesses. With more money in their pockets, workers would be better able to avoid homelessness as rents increase or a sudden emergency strains their already tight budgets. The proposed tax credit to small businesses would help to ease the impact as businesses adjust to the new wage levels.”
Amanda Silliman, who said she works full-time, including unpaid hours on weekends, earning less than the minimum wage, challenged lawmakers: “We must ask ourselves how we can expect our community to flourish if the minimum wage is too low to adequately support the cost of living. I may never own a home on the island I grew up on, and eventually I may be forced by financial circumstance to move elsewhere.”
Urging enactment of a living wage, Maui business owner Michelle Turner said, “I am not alone. There are many Hawaii businesses paying $15 an hour and up. If a business feels it cannot be profitable when paying their workers $15 an hour then perhaps they should not be in business.”
No time for school
Dannah Yamamoto, a social worker on Oahu told the story of a single mother. “She has a desire to get her college degree, so she can give back to her community. Yet, she needs to work two full-time, minimum wage jobs just to support her family. When she adds riding public transportation to and from these jobs, she has no time or resources to pursue higher education. It should not have to be this way.”
Hopefully the following facts presented to lawmakers by Nicole Woo of Hawaii Appleseed’s Center for Law and Economic Justice will guide their decision-making. Nearly 50 percent of families in our state struggle with incomes below a minimum survival budget.
To make ends meet in Hawaii workers must earn:
$17 per hour in 2019 for a single person with no children, with employer-provided health insurance, according to Hawaii’s own Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT).
$27.44 an hour to afford a 1-bedroom rental in Hawaii in 2018, according to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition,
$24.78 an hour in 2017 for a single person with no children in Honolulu County to have a “modest yet adequate standard of living,” according to the Economic Policy Institute
$21.52 an hour in 2018 for a single childless worker in Hawaii to achieve “basic economic security,” according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
At present lawmakers are looking at a bill that raises the minimum wage to $12.50 in 2024 for those who get healthcare from their employers. That’s an increase of about 50 cents an hour each year and it simply is not enough.
Testifier Bart Dame asked the question that looms over this whole issue:
“When we are confronted with a study from our own state government that sets the self-sufficiency wage at $17 an hour today, how do we justify raising it at a much slower rate and dragging it out to 2024?” That’s the question lawmakers will need to answer.
Dawn Morais Webster is a communications and issues advocate.