When cities pass living-wage laws, they require employers who do business with the local government to pay workers higher wages to help them pay their bills, get the rent in on time and put enough food on the table.
But arriving at a wage that’s enough for a worker to get by isn’t so simple—especially when the issue is tied up in political debates about the impact on businesses and job creation.
One of the least controversial parts of the living-wage debate is determining how much money residents need.
Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute and at Penn State track the cost of food, housing and several other expenses, which vary widely depending on geography and the size of a family.
In Manhattan a single adult is estimated to need at least $232 a month for food, $76 for healthcare, $1,185 for housing and $188 for other expenses, according to Penn State’s online living-wage calculator. Before taxes that requires a salary of $24,662, or $11.86 an hour for a full-time job.
Add a child to the equation and the single Manhattanite needs a $19.66-an-hour wage. For a worker and a stay-at-home spouse, $16.29 an hour should cover the costs.
Move up north to Plattsburgh and a single adult must earn $8 an hour. In Buffalo,
But those figures, as well as federal measures like welfare eligibility and the federal poverty rate, are only the starting point.
For one thing, living wage laws require a single wage level regardless of family size.
Moreover, actual living-wage laws are also based on what is economically and politically possible, which typically ends up in the $10- to $15-an-hour range.
“They’re very important as a metric along the way to see what really is the need, and there’s a balance between what people really need and what’s possible,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “Politics is the art of the possible.”
“Most living-wage laws fall below that level,” he added.
New York City set its current living-wage levels in 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council passed legislation aimed at low-paid healthcare workers and set a $10-an-hour wage for employees without health insurance.
The latest living-wage legislation, which the City Council approved this year, maintains the same living-wage level but extends it to more workers.
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