With one-dollar raise in pocket, lawmaker sets sites on living wage

by Jordan Green

Noting the “bittersweet” victory of a 10-year quest to raise the minimum wage by a dollar, NC Rep. Alma Adams set forth a more ambitious goal for raising the standard of living for the state’s poorest workers: implementing an across-the-board living wage pegged at $12.32 per hour.

Adams, who represents Guilford County in the NC House, called the minimum wage raise “a small but significant step” during remarks at Bennett College on July 21. Both houses of the General Assembly passed the measure, and Gov. Mike Easley has promised to sign it into law.

“For thousands of working poor families in Guilford County and those throughout North Carolina who earn a minimum wage of $5.15 this one dollar increase will perhaps mean the difference between being able to buy a loaf of bread for their children and having a few more dollars to help towards paying the light bill,” Adams said. “And while this one dollar increase will not move people out of poverty and was never intended to do that, it is a significant accomplishment and will mean an annual increase in their earnings of $2,072 which will help move these workers a bit closer to self-sufficiency.”

Adams said that while her ultimate goal is to pass a statewide living wage law, she plans to push for two interim measures during the 2007 legislative session. One step would be to create a state earned income tax credit that lessened the tax burden for low-income earners. Another would be to pass legislation indexing the state minimum wage to inflation, so employees did not depend on lawmakers to keep their wages aligned with costs.

The $12.32 living wage is based on a recommendation by the NC Tax and Budget Center, an arm of the NC Justice Center in Raleigh. The Justice Center is a non-profit anti-poverty research and litigation organization.

No state has ever implemented a living wage, according to data collected by the New York-based Living Wage Resource Center. Santa Fe, NM and San Francisco are two cities that have passed living wage ordinances.

Adams acknowledged that her state-level effort is one amongst a wide proliferation of efforts across the country to raise wages through government regulation. Among them is an effort led by retired Greensboro lawyer Jim Boyett to place a referendum before Greensboro voters that would establish a citywide minimum wage of $8.50. At the national level, Senate Democrats are pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage.

“I have met with a couple people working on this effort in Greensboro and am very happy to help with that effort,” Adams said. “You have to educate people. When you’re stomach’s not growling, you probably don’t understand. So I say the more the merrier.”

Sorien Schmidt, legislative director of the Justice Center, added: “The reason there are so many campaigns is because it’s a popular idea. It’s widely understood that people need to make more money. Instead of it being a dilution, I think it should be looked at as an idea whose time has come.”

Adams noted that the minimum wage increase passed with bipartisan support, and that NC Treasurer Richard Moore played an instrumental role in blunting conservative resistance through his outreach to state business leaders.

She largely sidestepped a question about how pro-business Democrats and their Republican colleagues might be persuaded that a living wage of $12.32 would serve their interests.

“We’re not going to get there in one jump,” Adams said. “Hopefully it won’t take another ten years. People want to work. These are not people who are just standing around on the street corner.”

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