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Julianne Malveaux

What is a Living Wage?

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(NNPA) Last week, workers at fast food restaurants demonstrated outside their places of work, highlighting the low wages they receive and demanding more. They say twice as much, or $15 an hour, will provide them with a living wage. In Washington, D.C., the City Council has sent legislation to Mayor Vincent Gray requiring “big box” stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy to pay $12.50, which is more than the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. In response, Wal-Mart says it may not build all of the six stores it had slated for D.C. Responses depend on whom you talk to, with some of the unemployed saying that an $8.25 job is better than no job, and others saying that $8.25 is not a living wage.

Let’s do the math.

Someone who earns $8.25 an hour (which is a dollar more an hour than the federal minimum wage) earns $17,160 per year if they work full time (40 hours) all year (52 weeks). Although taxes for the low income are low, they are still deducted, especially the Social Security tax (about 7 percent). Too many minimum workers don’t work full-time, full-year. Many have their hours cut so that companies can avoid paying benefits. This means full time, full year work is the best-case scenario. For many, it can be much worse.

The poverty line for one adult and two children is $19,530, which puts the $8.25 worker below the poverty line. The parent who earns this scant wage struggles to make ends meet, and often cannot. Too often, this parent has to choose between transportation and shoes for their children, between children’s books and food. A two-parent family has a higher poverty threshold of $23,550, about 20 percent more than the minimum wage worker earns.

Federal and state supplements often make the difference between swimming and sinking. Many families who live below the poverty line use supplemental nutrition programs (formerly called food stamps) to enhance their food budget. Congress is in the process of cutting SNAP so low that 5 million of the roughly 47 million people on the program will be cut. Some receive medical assistance through Medicaid. Some cities subsidize summer programs or other efforts, offering day care possibilities for those who struggle to afford it. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average cost of childcare in the District of Columbia is $1,300 a month, or $13,600 a year. Poverty line $23,550, childcare costs $13,600 per year. Go figure.

In other parts of the country, full-time, full year workers earn less than D.C. workers. Those who earn the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earn $15,160 per year, less than the poverty line for one parent and one child. Those who earn $12.50 per hour, the proposed wage for D.C. big box stores, will earn $26,000 a year. The $15 an hour that some fast food workers suggest would push their wages to $31,200 a year.

Some feel these low wages are acceptable, especially some Tea Party members of Congress, yet they earn at least $174,000 per year. Actually, if fast food workers were as productive as this Congress (which has produced little of nothing so far this year), they wouldn’t earn a penny. Yet those who are well paid and well supported show little empathy for those whose lives and work are daily struggles.

The issue of unemployment must be taken into account when we look at the matter of poverty lines and minimum wages. With an overall unemployment rate of 7.4 percent and a Black unemployment rate of 12,6 percent as of July, too many households with two adults have only one earner in the household. Another concern is that the federal poverty line is published as a national rate, yet it’s much cheaper to live, for example, in rural Mississippi than it does in New York City. In many instances, the poverty line does not reflect differences in housing costs, health care costs, or even transportation costs.

The Economic Policy Institute (epi.org) has developed budgets for “adequate” living in certain cities. (Full disclosure – I sit on the organization’s board). This tool shows the wide variety of realistic and adequate living costs, which range from more than $90,000 in New York City, to around $40,000 in parts of Mississippi. These are adequate living standards, not extravagant ones, taking into account rent, transportation, and other costs.

Many quibble over the minimum wage, but the more relevant issue is the living wage. Millions are pushed below the poverty line because too many employers do not take the cost of living into consideration when the set wage levels. Paying workers less than they are worth drains our economy because these workers will not be spenders or “economic expanders.”

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Student Loan 'Solution' is not Good Enough

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(NNPA) The United States Senate finally stepped up to ensure that student loan rates would not double. There have been weeks of back and forth, but now Senators says they will tie student loan rates to the federal funds rate, which means that in the short-run the lowest student loan rates will be 3.86 percent, up slightly from 3.4 percent. The bad news is that these loan rates may rise up to a rate of 8.25 percent, depending on prevailing interest rates. All other loan rates, including those for graduate student, for Parent PLUS loans, and others, will rise as well.

It may seem a victory that student loan rates don’t rise much higher than they were in June. The connection of rates to the federal funds rate, however, connects the notion of supporting student to the oscillations of the economy. We need talented students to enter the labor force, as encumbered as they might be, whether the economy is rising or tanking. The notion that student loan rates will be tied to the federal funds rate offers students no security.

One might argue that many have no economic security. The mortgage holder with a variable mortgage is subject to interest rate fluctuations as they manage a balloon payment. Those with underground mortgages are victims of interest rate variables as they try to dig themselves above ground. Surely, though, students who are financing their education in order to invest in the health of our nation should have different rules. When I graduated from college in 1974, interest rates hovered between 9 and 10 percent. The student loan interest rate was 2 percent. Why? My cohort was no more or less brilliant than any other. We were part of our nation’s plan for its future, which should be the case for today’s young people.

Many hoped that the deal on student loan interest rates would take into account the federal funds rate (the rate to which the Federal Reserve Bank offers to banks) is well below 1 percent. From that perspective, even the existing rate of 3.4 percent suggests that the government is taking in more than it gives out. It’s complicated – there are other costs that must be considered in the lending process. It’s complicated, but shouldn’t our students get as close to the same deal that banks and others get?

Allowing student loan interest rates to fluctuate, to the detriment of students in an environment when rates are certain to go up is to slap our students in the face. President Obama says he wants more students to graduate from community college or four-year institutions; we need more graduate and professional students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs.

It seems hypocritical to articulate these needs and then to undercut the means to meet them. There are more than one 1 trillion dollars outstanding in student loan obligations. The average student graduates with $27,000 in debt. Since nearly half of all students graduate with no debt at all, this means that the average debt for those who borrow is closer to $40,000.

Many students with a talent for organizing, human resource allocation, or classroom teaching are diverted from their goals because their first priority is to pay student loan debt. We are starving our civil society institution, and those who would serve them, by placing money over affinity and creativity. This has been happening for decades, but the current student loan dustup reminds us that we have not provided the safe space for our young people that we should.

The Senate bill passed 80-18 with some Democrats rejecting it because of its flaws. Others, like the progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), elected as a financial whiz and people’s advocate, chose to go with the one-year “okey-doke” rather than dig her heels in for the long run fight.

In some ways, Warren is right. The finger in the dike approach saves students this year, and so it is better than nothing. When, though, is better than nothing simply not good enough. Stay tuned. The vote on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will happen next year. Are students waiting and watching? What about parents? Is there a political lobby to turn this mess around?

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

What Blacks Can Learn from South Africa

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(NNPA) Nelson Mandela turned 95 years old on Thursday, July 18. He has been hospitalized for more than a month, and the world holds its breath as we witness the decline of the lion that roared for freedom in South Africa. Mandela’s insistence and persistence for freedom for Black South Africans, which included a 27-year jail sentence, reminds us of the persistence it takes to make structural and institutional change.

We African Americans have been far more episodic in our quest for freedom. We galvanized around Brown v. Board of Education, again around the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Fifty years ago, we were on the Mall in Washington, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, the most well-known of the several speeches delivered that day. We continued to fight for college admission, fair housing, and diverse police forces. And as these gains were attained, some of us stopped fighting.

Many in the Black middle class didn’t know what they should fight for. They had good jobs, nice homes, and good cars. They had gone to college and their children were, as well. Unless they were dyed in the wool civil rights activists, they were content to coast along. To be sure, there were micro aggressions they needed to manage, much as Ellis Cose’s Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? (Harper Books, 1993) detailed. While there is a connection between many kinds of profiling, there is a big difference between being hassled at a department store and being unarmed and killed on the street.

The South African fight was clear, just as the fight for African American rights was in the sixties. The difference? African Americans made gains that were tenuous without continued protest. In South Africa, the pressure for protest has been continuous despite the gains that have been made. Even as Black Africans have been elected to leadership in South Africa, many see past the titular gains to ask about the living conditions of those who are not middle class, not moneyed, still living without electricity in townships. In contrast, few African American politicians speak for the least and the left out, the poor, the unemployed, the marginal. That there is an African American president of the United States has been more a muzzle than a motivator. Reluctant to criticize President Barack Obama, too many activists have swallowed their ire even as our president has ignored them.

As Nelson Mandela struggles to maintain life, one is reflective about the ways he was denied his freedom for so long. Mandela made a life for himself on Robben Island, as he navigated captivity and restriction, broken promises and crippled dreams. Because of Mandela’s persistent and gentle spirit, however, he prevailed enough to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Frederik Willem de Klerk) in 1993.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. In accepting the Peace Prize, he said “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, peace and freedom for their spirits.” King laid out a game plan that many have only reluctantly embraced. We still have hunger, illiteracy and dissent in the U.S. Few have stepped up to deal with these matters with the persistence that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had. When President Obama establishes a middle class task force, what does this mean for the poor?

Perhaps the comparison between US black people and those in South Africa is unfair. WE have had leaders like Nelson Mandela – Dorothy Irene Height comes immediately to mind – who have given their lives to the freedom struggle and have not wavered or cowered in the face of challenge. South Africa, like the United States, has class divides between the middle class and the poor, with a sometimes indifferent middle class more interested in profits than people. But when I think of Nelson Mandela’s persistence, I think of the many ways that we, African Americans, have dropped the ball.

Trayvon Martin is not the first young man to have been massacred in the streets, nor is he the first to garner national attention. Little has changed because we have not been persistent in our protest. The details in providing equal opportunity in South Africa may be flawed, but they represent movement. The episodic engagement of African Americans around justice issues pales in the face of South African persistence.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Looking Beyond George Zimmerman

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(NNPA) Trayvon Martin might not be dead except for the fact that George Zimmerman carried a gun and acted as a wanna-be policeman. Rev. Al Sharpton and others deserve props for rallying people and insisting that Zimmerman be brought to trial. Anytime a gun goes off, I think somebody has to go to trial, simply to ensure that their actions be accounted for. Zimmerman was found not guilty, but least he has been made somewhat accountable for his actions.

Zimmerman isn’t the only one slaughtering young Black men, though. Too many of our young brothers are slaughtering each other. In Washington, D.C., rising senior Omar Adam Sykes was killed on Independence Day. He was a victim of an attempted robbery, when two men approached he and a friend with guns. The Howard University police say that robberies on campus are on the decline, but I don’t think that Omar Sykes’ parents find that any consolation. Indeed, one young Black man lost to gun violence is too many, whether the perpetrator was a vigilante like George Zimmerman, or another young Black man who is so desperate for dollars that he will kill another brother.

Seventy-four people were shot, and a dozen killed in gun violence in Chicago during the July 4 weekend. Two of them were young boys, aged 5 and 7. Much of this is gang violence, and too many of the victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No matter. This scourge of gun violence is a plague on our nation, but especially on the African-American community.

The online website Slate estimates that more than 6,500 people have been killed this year through gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control says it is at least twice as many. Since the massacre of 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., there has been a marked concern about gun violence. Concern, however, does not move legislation. Those politicians who have been purchased by the National Rifle Association lament gun violence but are unwilling to do anything about it. So the violence continues.

There are heart-breaking stories of those who are massacred. Young men and women at the cusp of adulthood who happened to be “hanging out” with friends on the wrong corner. Fathers who agitated an enraged driver. Children who “got in the way” of a random bullet. The NRA says that guns don’t kill, people do. But people without guns can perhaps wreak havoc without creating a fatality.

While the population of the United States exceeds 300 million, there are about 280 million guns in civilian hands. Every year, 4.5 million firearms, including about 2 million guns have been sold. While many do not own guns, those who do keep acquiring them – the average gun owner had nearly seven guns in 2004, up from four guns 10 years earlier. More than 30 people are victims of gun violence each day. A third of them are under 20; half are between 18 and 35. Gun violence is the leading cause of death of African Americans in that age group.

What if George Zimmerman had not had a gun? If he did what he was told to do, police officers may have come and questioned Trayvon as he proceeded to the house of his daddy’s friend. Or perhaps there may have been a fist fight. There surely would not have been a deadly bullet, and while Zimmerman was the slayer, our gun laws are complicit in Trayvon Martin’s execution.

How many young people have been victims of unintended violence, victims of drive by violence, people just minding their business and losing their lives for minding their business? How many people with axes to grind would whoop and holler instead of carrying guns to workplaces, schools, and other places? How many crazy legislatures are relaxing gun laws to allow people to carry guns in bars and near schools? How many retailers, such as Starbucks, refuse to ban guns in their establishments (in states where openly carrying guns is legal)?

As we mourn for Trayvon Martin, let us also recognize the scourge of gun violence. If we restricted gun ownership, this tragedy, and thousands of others, may not have happened.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

Limiting Women's Right to Choose

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(NNPA) I was 20 years old when Roe v. Wade was decided. A year before the decision, a young woman who lived in my dormitory attempted to abort herself and hemorrhaged so badly that she was hospitalized. I’ll never forget the blood on the floor of her room, and the anguished screams of her roommate. The young woman never returned to school, her promising future cut short because she could not obtain a legal abortion. Now, there is an effort to return to the days of back alley abortions, or the days relatively wealthy women left the country to obtain legal and safe abortions. Republican-dominated legislatures in several states are committed to limiting and perhaps even eliminating women’s right to choose.

The same Republicans who would limit a woman’s right to choose, are the same who say there are too many government regulations. Some would dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, institute a flat tax, eliminate the minimum wage and dismantle affirmative action. In North Dakota, the governor signed legislation to outlaw abortion after only six weeks of pregnancy. The law may not be constitutional but its passage sends a dangerous signal to women who support choice.

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis garnered national headlines (and the appreciation of many women) when her 11-hour filibuster defeated (at least temporarily) a proposed law that would forbid abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If enacted, the Texas law would also require abortion clinics to have additional equipment, making them far more expensive to operate.

The North Carolina legislature has presented a similar law to the governor, who promised not to sign such legislation when he ran for office. But the governor does not have to sign the legislation for it to become law, since his failure to sign will effectively ratify the law. Should Gov. Pat McCrory veto the law, there are enough votes to override his veto.

Senator Marco Rubio is likely to introduce similar legislation in the United States senate, making the effort to limit women’s right to choose a national mandate.

Meanwhile, a January Gallup poll indicated that just 29 percent of all Americans support overturning Roe v. Wade. Eighteen percent said they had no opinion, and 53 said that Roe should not be overturned. The Republican push to limit abortion rights, though, effectively limits or overturns Roe v. Wade. While many suggest that African Americans are more conservative on things like abortion rights, a 2012 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, two-thirds of African Americans, support a woman’s right to choose. Marcia Ann Gillespie, former editor of both Essence and Ms. magazines once wrote, supporting the right to choose, that choice is the essence of freedom, and many of those who support abortion rights do so not because they want women to have abortions, but because they want women to have choices.

Limiting abortions to less than 20 weeks, increasing licensing requirements, forcing women to wait 24 hours (or more) before getting an abortion, requiring doctors to show pictures of fetuses, are all ways to erode abortion rights, and limit women’s choices. Many Republicans don’t want to increase the minimum wage, but they want to limit women’s options. The zeal they exhibit for limiting abortion isn’t matched by zeal to feed children once they are here. Indeed, between sequestration and proposed legislation, dollars available for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the old Food Stamps program) have been falling. In other words, these folks care about unborn children until they are born, then they can go for self.

Many of those who would not regulate the economy, would regulate what a woman does with her body. And this movement is gaining. Some cite religion, and others quite cynically talk about the children that are “killed” even before a fetus is viable. While Republicans are not the only people who oppose abortion rights, as more state legislatures have turned Republican, the effort to pass laws limiting abortion rights has renewed impetus.

I don’t think anybody “likes” abortion, but it is an effective way to end unwanted pregnancies, and many women make this choice for financial and other reasons. Shouldn’t women use birth control? Of course, but there is no form of birth control that is infallible (not to mention the abortions some women have in cases of rape and incest), and attacks on organizations like Planned Parenthood reduce the amount of sex education and contraception available. Forty years ago, women were shackled by their inability to make choices. Now, women have options and possibilities. Any woman who has an aversion to abortion doesn’t have to have one. It’s that simple.

I don’t remember the girl’s name that hemorrhaged in my dorm. I do remember her big orange Afro, her quick smile, and her love of learning. And when I think of her, I think of Langston Hughes writing about “a dream deferred.” We can’t go back to those days of back alley abortions. Just as Republicans are going state by state to limit women’s rights, those who support choice should go state by state to preserve them. We need more state legislators like Senator Wendy Davis. We can’t go back!

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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