This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier Journal. You can find it online here.
For me, Labor Day is captured in two photographs. Each shows one of my grandfathers at his work.
“Pa Brooks” stands in his Smoketown mechanic shop in the 1940s. He stands in a stained workers’ jumpsuit surrounded by a cadre of grinders, hoses and assorted work stations. The photo captures grit and grime.
The second photograph was published in The Courier-Journal in 1960, and it captured my maternal grandfather driving his team of mules in a field which today is a UPS runway. Seeing him with the harness and plow and soil tells the tale of that same grit and grime.
Those photographs – one rural and one industrialized — remind me of what work meant to that generation of men and women.
They remind me of how blessed I am in my profession. And they remind me that Labor Day should mean more than the end of summer and the beginning of the football season. Labor Day should be a moment to honor the economic and social contributions of the labor force to the prosperity and strength of both our country and our commonwealth.
Labor Day 2013, however, brings a stark reminder of the struggles many workers in Kentucky and the United States are facing as income inequality and poverty increase. Kentucky’s economy remains stagnant following the Great Recession. But the problems extend far beyond the last seven years. For almost 40 years, the vast majority of workers have not fared well in the U.S., with median hourly compensation, including wages and benefits, rising just 10.7 percent while the average price of a gallon of milk has increased 162 percent.
Meanwhile, the value of the minimum wage has also been declining and has contributed to the earnings of low-wage workers falling significantly behind those of other workers. For example, the minimum wage in 2011 was worth only about a third of the average hourly earnings of a production/non-supervisory worker. This difference between what the average hourly worker earns and what minimum wage workers earn has contributed to rising wage inequality.
Over 47,000 children in Jefferson County live in poverty — for a family of four that means an income of less than $22,050 a year. More than 37,000 families with children in Jefferson County have incomes under $50,000, which is what studies suggest it takes to actually make ends meet.
At the national level, the federal minimum wage and Earned Income Tax Credit are two policies proven essential for low-income workers.
While these policies are helping Kentucky workers, there is much more we as Kentuckians can and must do to ensure our most vulnerable workers and their families can put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Talk to any landlord, utility company or food bank and they will tell you that Kentucky families are struggling. Enacting a Kentucky living wage law and a state EITC would raise many more families out of poverty and significantly benefit our state economy.
A state EITC is a proven way to increase work effort, generate local business and pull families out of poverty. It is a small investment that would make a big difference in the lives of working Kentucky families. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have passed such state income tax credits, but currently no state EITC exists in Kentucky.
Kentucky can also take action by enacting a living wage law. Living wage laws establish wage standards for businesses that receive money from local governments, usually requiring that wages be paid above the poverty level. Under the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, an employee working full time for a full year earns only $15,080. This is less than the established federal poverty level for a three-person household (such as a working mother with two children), which is $19,530.
What does this mean? A single mom working full time at minimum wage continues to live in poverty. She struggles to meet the basic necessities of her family despite her hard work and perseverance. More than 120 municipalities across the country have enacted such laws since the early 1990s.
It will take a lot to restore our economy. But helping our lowest-income workers with a living wage law and a state EITC is a win for all. For a low-income family, more money brought home in a paycheck means rent payments are made on time, local mechanics get paid to repair the family vehicles, and other necessities are purchased from local retailers.
My grandfathers worked hard, but that hard work gave their families a decent life. In contrast, hard-working families today are neither getting ahead nor even making ends meet. The time has come for us to make sure that all Kentucky residents who are working hard can earn enough money to take care of their families.