In choosing which votes to include in the annual Poverty Scorecard, we consult with national experts in more than twenty different issue areas. This helps us to identify the full scope of the votes most important to poor people and ensure that the Poverty Scorecard fully reflects Congressional action (and inaction) in addressing the complex needs of low-income Americans. This year, a number of the most important poverty-related votes fell into three categories: employment, health care and housing.
A quality job builds a foundation from which a family can find stability and thrive. Many American workers benefit from jobs that provide good wages, healthcare, and retirement savings options, while other workers face instability and stress from scheduling issues, job loss because of sick days, and hunger each month despite working. Not all jobs are created equal. A decreasing number of jobs that pay a living wage means more workers having to choose between adequate health care and nutrition, bills and rent, or keeping up with other expenses.
Low-income Americans face greater barriers to quality employment, struggle to access training or reliable child care, and are more likely to fall victim to wage theft. Expanding the pool of quality employment and ensuring equal access to these jobs is essential to lowering poverty in the U.S.; this issue was addressed by Congress in a number of bills voted on last year.
The two employment-related bills that made the biggest steps forward to reduce poverty in America were the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act. WIOA reauthorized the national employment, training, and education system and included improvements that will align programs across states with the current labor market. Now focusing on the most vulnerable American workers, WIOA has the ability to provide pathways to stability for many Americans if states embrace these updates. The reauthorization of the federal child care program signals an additional commitment to low-income American workers. CCDBG provides funding for states to subsidize child care for low-income Americans who want to work or continue their education. This bill also included important updates that will improve the program’s quality and accessibility, focusing on how the child care system can more safely and appropriately serve low-income families in need of this work support. Both houses of Congress worked on CCDBG and WIOA reauthorization, passing the bills into law with near unanimous votes after temporarily reauthorizing the programs in previous years.
Unfortunately, Congress did not pass the other important employment-related bills considered this year. Emergency unemployment compensation benefits (EUC) support workers during periods of joblessness that are more common in low-wage work. Although the Senate voted to reauthorize EUC, the House did not consider this bill, which would have had the dual benefit of lifting low-income families out of poverty and creating jobs through increased consumer spending. In addition, Congress failed to pass two amendments to protect American workers from wage theft and discrimination. The first, an amendment to an appropriations bill, would have denied federal contracts to employers with histories of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. Congress members’ failure to pass this bill left an estimated 28 million Americans who work in federally contracted positions vulnerable to wage theft. The second, The Paycheck Fairness Act, sought to strengthen the legal tools that protect employees from gender-based discrimination. On average, women receive 78 cents for every dollar men receive for the same work, a disparity that exists across occupations and education levels, and is much worse for women of color. Fixing this disparity would boost many low-income families simply by ensuring a fair wage for the work women perform. Finally, Congress failed to take steps forward on one of the most-discussed employment issues: the minimum wage.
The value of the minimum wage has fallen significantly in the past 40 years, leaving low-wage workers struggling to afford housing, healthcare, and other basic necessities. The federal minimum wage--current set at $7.25--is worth roughly 23% less than it was in the late 1960s, despite significant increases in both worker productivity and the cost of living.
Increasing the minimum wage will have a significant impact on poverty. Nearly 88% of workers who would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage are at least 20 years old, and the average affected worker earns half of his or her family income. Because a full-time minimum wage worker earns only $15,080 annually, many low-wage workers and their families must rely on public assistance programs to get by.
The Minimum Wage Fairness Act, S. 2223, would have increased the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015 and ensured that the wage kept pace with the rising cost of living thereafter. The bill would also have gradually increased the federal minimum cash wage for tipped workers (currently $2.13) until it equaled 70% of the minimum wage for other workers. This bill was rejected on a motion to invoke cloture by a vote of 54 to 42.
In the face of the federal government’s failure to act, many states and municipalities moved to increase their minimum wages in the last year. Four states (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota) approved minimum wage increases through ballot measures, and the legislatures in Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia enacted increases during their 2014 sessions. Moreover, at least six cities, including Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and San Diego, enacted municipal ordinances raising the minimum wage. As a result of state minimum wage increases that went into effect on January 1, 2015, either through scheduled cost-of-living increases or pursuant to recently enacted state law, approximately 3.1 million workers will see an increase in their pay.
Over the last four years, Illinois has been a battleground on this issue. In November 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum calling for the state to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. Despite this popular support, the state legislature has thus far failed to act. Meanwhile, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that will increase the minimum wage in Chicago to $13 an hour by 2019. This action will lift 70,000 workers out of poverty and raise the wages of nearly 31% of the city’s workforce. Notably, the Chicago ordinance covers domestic workers, a group that has historically not been afforded employment protections such as the minimum wage. Moreover, the ordinance will index the minimum wage to inflation after 2020. Wendy Pollack, Director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center, has been actively advocating for minimum wage legislation at both the state and municipal level. “Though there are mixed results from the employment and wage data emerging at the close of 2014, with the great work of workers and advocates moving forward increases in the minimum wage and other developments, we can expect more victories for low-income workers in 2015,” said Pollack.