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Columns January 7, 2016  RSS feed

Wage hikes needed to restore the American Dream

BY JOEL BERG

What’s happened to the American dream?

When my grandparents arrived in New York as immigrants early in the 20th century, the American dream offered a beacon of hope to the world. Today that dream is fading fast.

Citywide, 1.4 million children, seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and other adults suffer from food insecurity, unable to afford sufficient food. In Queens, 11 percent of children and 8 percent of seniors struggle against hunger.When even Queens, a formerly bedrock middle-class borough, is in trouble, the whole nation is in trouble.

The top cause of hunger is low wages. Nearly half a million working age adults in the city live in households that are food insecure but include at least one person working. We are now facing an epidemic of the “working hungry.” No one should ever go hungry, but especially not those who are “working hard and playing the by rules,” as my old boss Bill Clinton used to say.

Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, low-income workers received a bit of relief on Dec. 31, 2015, when the hourly minimum wage in the city increased to $7.50 for tipped workers, $10.50 for fast food workers, and to $9 for all other workers.

But even those who earn $10.50 per hour are still likely impoverished, and may face hunger and the threat of homelessness. If they work full time (35 hours per week), and never take off for vacation, they would earn only $19,100 in a year. Yet the average Queens rent is now $2,119 per month, equaling $25,000 per year. When so many people pay more in rent than they earn in salary, it’s no wonder they don’t have money left over for food.

That’s why we so strongly support Governor Cuomo’s push to raise wages for all workers to $15 per hour, and why we believe future hikes should be automatically indexed to inflation.

Some big business groups will howl that wage hikes will significantly reduce jobs and raise prices, but they have been using such scare tactics since the first minimum wages were implemented in the 1930s, and they have been proven wrong time and time again. The reality is that wage hikes give workers more money to purchase goods and services, thus aiding the overall economy.

To end hunger, we also need to dramatically increase federal funding for the SNAP (formerly food stamp) program. Most adults who receive such aid work, so SNAP rewards work and helps boost long-term self-sufficiency. SNAP now has the lowest fraud level in modern history, only 1.3 percent, and further creates jobs in the food industry. Besides, most SNAP recipients are children, seniors, people with disabilities and veterans.

But if you are a conservative who rejects all the facts that support the expansion of SNAP, then I challenge you to support minimum wage hikes. If you truly want to reduce dependency and reward work, there is no better way of doing so than lifting wages to ensure that all full-time workers can afford to pay for both food and rent.

Joel Berg is the executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.