The fight for wage fairness should not end with $15
Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the landmark minimum wage deal that bypassed ballot measures on Monday morning, undertaking a statewide experiment of sorts. California will be the first state to raise the wage to $15 an hour in increments from 2017 to 2022, following in the footsteps of cities such as Seattle and New York City. Though this decision marks a victory for workers’ groups, like Fight for 15, it doesn’t signal the end of the struggle for a livable wage. Rather, it prompts close monitoring and tandem legislation to ensure that the cost of living does not eclipse the spending power of California’s wage earners.
Despite rising inflation rates, the Fair Labor Standards Act set the federal hourly minimum wage at $7.25 in 2009, with no changes since. In 19 states, the minimum wage is either the federal level or does not exist at all. Given that if California could stand alone, it would be the world’s eighth largest economy, it is a mystery as to why it took this long to secure the remuneration and stability of its workforce.
In fact, wage fairness in California — particularly in Los Angeles — has been moving in the opposite direction in the recent past. The nonprofit research group Economic Roundtable reports that wage erosion has caused 75 percent of L.A. laborers to earn less than comparable workers from 30 years ago. In the face of wage injustice, economists have carefully arrived at the $15 wage as a livable one, and concluded that the increase can take place without job loss because increases will be incremental. After years of post-recession stagnation and the tireless efforts of politically mobilized workers, the plan signed by Brown comes as a long-awaited breath of fresh air — and just plain common sense.
California would do well to look at other cases of the $15 minimum wage, however. Seattle, which has a high cost of living similar to that of Los Angeles and San Francisco, passed its wage reform law in 2014 and will hit its $15 goal as soon as 2017. Their plan even sets the wage over $18 by the year 2025. In addition, the new California minimum wage will mean different things in different regions; Pew Research Center reports that densely populated areas, like Southern California and the coast, will only exercise a spending power of $12 relative to the hourly $15 wage. This cost adjustment and Seattle’s prospective wage increases put the new California law into perspective — if what workers need now is $15, will that amount still be appropriate by the year 2022?
Perhaps not, but there are certain things California legislators can do to facilitate living on $15 an hour. In a state where 20-somethings shell out $400 a month to live in a wooden “pod” barely larger than a mattress, housing costs need serious regulation. Even with the blessing of improved transportation in Los Angeles comes a curse — renting prices along the unopened Expo Line of the Metropolitan Transit Authority have already shot up by as much as 45 percent. If gentrification wrought by the projected Metro extensions prices out locals of working-class neighborhoods like the San Fernando Valley’s Van Nuys and Sylmar, soon there won’t be affordable housing for minimum wage earners and their families, and bustling areas like Los Angeles will face a deficit of workers that once ran their economies.
Another large expense factored into the cost of living is nutrition, which varies regionally depending on the presence of food deserts where fresh fare is lacking and people opt for unhealthy, readily available fast food. Food deserts have nearly become a way of life in L.A. and USC’s own neighborhood of South Central, but they also paradoxically plague central regions of California, where produce is grown in mass quantities. The state racks up $10.4 billion in annual obesity-related healthcare spending as a function of its unhealthy eating habits, an insurmountable sum for people working for $15 an hour.
Though Brown’s minimum wage deal is a welcome and necessary change in California’s economic landscape, the reality of the situation is that $15 is not the same across the board. To better guarantee the prosperity of its labor force, California lawmakers should focus on rectifying regional variability by controlling rent and dissolving food deserts in conjunction with adjusting the wage over time to reflect accurate purchasing power. If what the labor unions and the governor envisioned was an improved quality of life for wage-earners, they must also include matters of expense associated with income.