First, let’s preface what we’re about to say with a commonly accepted generality: The economy is improving.
Second, consider how much more glaring that generality makes the latest study on how much taxpayers are subsidizing the miserly habits of corporations through low wages and thread-bare benefits.
This month, the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center released its report, “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon.” Its findings conclude that more than 400,000 Oregonians are employed in low-wage work: “This systemic low-wage work (when salaries are set far below the costs needed to raise a family) means the demand for public services is at a record high — more than 1 million Oregonians now rely on food stamps and other assistance to feed and support their families.”
As a result, taxpayers fill the gaps through government programs, such as food stamps, to the tune of $1.7 billion each year. There is a cost to this level of economic suppression, and it is borne by every taxpayer in the state, including those needing assistance in the first place.
In summary, the economic recovery, the report concludes, “has bypassed working Oregonians.”
So it’s also no surprise when Work Systems, a nonprofit agency that coordinates workforce development programs to train and employ Oregonians, says that one out of three households in Multnomah and Washington counties is not making ends meet.
One out of three.
That’s according to a standard of 70 household measurements for every county in Oregon. The largest increased self-sufficiency needs occurred in Multnomah County, where the rising cost of living for a young family means people who were once able to get by are now rapidly falling behind.
So in the abstract, the economy might be improving on the big stage, but go ask the family of four trying to pay rent how the economy is faring. Concrete facts reveal a different story. Ask members of the Latino and African-American communities — where 45 percent and 50 percent of workers, respectively, are employed in low-wage industries — and you’ll probably hear more about erratic schedules and limited hours than the economic rebound.
Talk to a single parent trying to support his or her family, and the optimism for a better next quarter is nowhere to be found. According to the U of O report, one in three female-headed households are paid less than $25,000 a year. That jumps to 54 percent among those women with children under 5 years old.
Instead of enjoying this so-called economic recovery, we’re paying for it.
How do we change that? We can do so by investing in our social infrastructure — such as affordable housing — and forcing those corporations on the recovery side of this economy to offset their wage suppression with a public assistance fee. And we must end wage discrimination and expand paid sick leave and child care options. We can do this.
There’s no one silver bullet, but ending the denial of what a true economic recovery means for all of us is a great step forward. So let’s stop taking two steps back.