/Waging a living How Mississippi’s abundant low-wage workers earn less today than 50 years ago

Waging a living How Mississippi’s abundant low-wage workers earn less today than 50 years ago

Ward and Drones make $8.50 an hour, respectively. They greet shoppers, stock goods, and work the cash register. Two of Mississippi’s 42,000 cashiers are Drones and Ward. They are the most common job in Mississippi, surpassing teachers, registered nurses, police officers, registered nurse, and 6th largest city, Meridian. Fortification Street is just one of 518 Dollar General stores in Mississippi. This poor rural state has seen the small-box store thrive by providing low-cost necessities and individually packaged goods to its customers. CNN reported that Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos said to analysts last August that while the economy is performing well, “our core customer continues struggling because, normally, she’s expenses exceed her wage growth.” CNN also reported that Vasos spoke on a conference phone call with analysts. His employees, Ward and Drones could be the hypothetical customer Vasos refers to. They are the people who make up the center of the national debate about raising the federal minimum wage. While advocates argue that a higher wage floor can lift people out of poverty, detractors claim that employers should pay workers less to keep them in work and push families into poverty. This is especially relevant in Mississippi where there are more Mississippians living in poverty than any other state. Also, a large portion of low-wage jobs make Mississippi a particularly vulnerable state. Ward, a single mother who works part time, has her 10-year-old daughter raised on approximately $10,000 annually. Drones is a full-time worker and earns about $1,500 per month more than his colleague, but it’s still not enough to leave his mother’s home. Mississippi’s minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour, hasn’t changed in a decade. In contrast, minimum wages in 29 other states range from $7.50 up to $12. Ward stated, “Mississippi is always so far behind –last on the totem tree.” According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, Mississippi’s cashiers account for a larger percentage of the workforce today — approximately 37 of every 1,000 workers — than any other state. Their average annual salary is $19,620, less than half of the state’s median household income. This would place a single mother with two children below the poverty line. Eric J. Shelton/Report For America Congressional efforts for raising the federal minimum wage include a bill that would more than double the wage to $15 per year by 2024. This is despite the fact that the Senate is Republican-majority. According to an Oxfam report, which is an international non-profit working to end poverty, it’s unlikely that the proposal will benefit Mississippi workers, 42 percent. This assumes that low-wage workers aren’t made redundant by the wage increase. Numerous economic studies have shown that this policy would lead to job loss. A 2014 U.S. Congressional Budget Office report concluded that a $10.10 minimum wages proposal would result in the loss of half-million jobs across the country. Advocates of a minimum wages increase claim that any job loss does not negate the overall economic effect of income increases for remaining workers and their families. Some of these people would be able to live above the poverty line due to the increased wages. Although there are many competing economic theories on the minimum wage, it is one of the most heated national policy issues. However, the discussion is still repressed in Mississippi, which is one of five states that have not enacted its own minimum wages. Ward, who is a recipient of public assistance, makes slightly more than the minimum wage but would still be considered to be in poverty if she were to take on a full-time job. Drones stated that this is not a job to build a family or live a good life. Many opponents of wage increases argue that jobs at or near the minimum wage are often held by teenagers and not designed to support families. Drones said that Drones’ pay would be more suitable for high school students. “This is not balance-a-check-book-off-this-check type of job. This is high school. “I need a car.” He said that he was trying to purchase a tuxedo for prom and then work at Dollar General. However, that is not the truth of who works there. Many of them work during the day when teens are at school. Drones stated that these jobs are not available for teenagers. According to the Current Population Survey, which is a joint survey of the U.S. Census Bureau (and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), less than one-third of Mississippi’s cashiers are teens. * The majority of them are women (86%) and over one-fourth are older than 30 years. Mary Babic, an Oxfam spokesperson, stated that there will always exist low-wage and low-skilled jobs. “The odds are good that those people will continue to do those jobs their whole lives.” These aren’t bad jobs. “Those are people who do vital tasks, and we need to reward them accordingly.” Ward spent her first 20 years of adulthood raising her two daughters and caring for her family while her husband worked. He started as a personal caregiver and now owns his own business. Ward stated that he wanted him to leave the children alone and that is what he did. Ward said that he was able to take good care of everyone. She was aware at the time that she was giving up a comfortable lifestyle. Ward had only worked odd jobs, bagging groceries at the local grocery shop to make a few dollars extra, but not to provide a home. Although she found stable employment at the Mississippi State Hospital as a direct-care worker, she had to take leave three times due to stress. She was often in close contact with erratic patients, and her hourly rate was just $7. Ward stated that after six years of service, a patient upset her had charged her. Ward pushed him away, breaking protocol which led to her firing. Ward was home with her 1-year-old daughter, her third child. Ward had a lot of support from her family, including government assistance and unemployment benefits. “This is not what it was I wanted to do. This was not my future. Ward stated that when I was married, it was my belief that I would be married for the rest. Ward applied for help from the Hinds County Human Resource Agency last year. This agency is a local community action agency that receives federal funding to lift people out poverty. Ward was sent by the agency to the local unemployment office to assist her in her job search. This self-guided center offers job seekers computer access. Access Training, a local job-training agency, accepted Ward into its nursing assistant program in June. She could have renewed her certificate through this agency but Dollar General accepted her job request just as she was about to start the six-week course. Ward chose the cashier job with immediate income. She said that she was grateful to God for being able to find a job. “My avenues and revenue were few and none.” A nursing assistant job would have been a poor choice as the average Mississippi aide earns $10.81 per hour. The cost of living has increased since 2009’s federal wage hike. While wages have remained fairly stagnant, the dollar value of workers has fallen by 16 cents. In 2009 dollars, the minimum wage of $7.25 is equivalent to $6.07. Babic stated that this means workers are being paid less each year. Eric J. Shelton/Report For America, Mississippi Today/Report For America, 1996-2001. The minimum wage ranged from $4.75 to $5.15 and had more purchasing power than today’s current minimum wage. According to the MIT living wages calculator, the highest-value minimum wage was $1.60 an-hour in 1968. This translated to $11.89 today, which is slightly more than the Jackson living wage. A single mother with one child earns $21.80-an hour. This assumes that she works full-time. Ward has restricted her work hours to fit in with her daughter’s school schedule. Ward stated that even if she could afford child care, she would not work more than one job and leave her baby with anyone. Ward earns $700 per month working four days a weeks at Dollar General. Ward also receives $90 food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and $280 child support from her youngest son. This pays for school supplies, clothing, and sports equipment. She earns enough to pay her light, gas and water bills, as well as $200 per month in food and gasoline. Ward, her 10-year-old daughter, pays for hair appointments. However, Ward still wears her natural hair in a sleek back ponytail. Ward stated, “I budget my money exactly.” She stated that there is no room for savings. Ward is eligible for a $600 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development housing voucher that will pay rent on a south Jackson ranch-style home. Ward, who is on welfare benefits and has a voucher to help pay rent, would be in a hole of nearly $100 per month without the voucher. This does not include any monthly expenses. She said, “They ask about why people are still on welfare benefits?” “Now, although I cannot speak for others, I can say that I can. Some aren’t working, but I do work. Because I feel like I would be homeless if it wasn’t for the housing authority (assistance), I keep on going. It’s almost like you’re stuck.” For nearly 400 people, Allison Cox, deputy director of Jackson Housing Authority, stated that they have been waiting on the voucher program at Jackson Housing Authority for more than a decade. The regional housing authority has applications pending for even more people. Since 2008, the Jackson office, which houses over 40% of those living in poverty, has not been able take applications. Ward stated that there is nothing you can do if you are trying to get off housing assistance. Ward said, “They want me to purchase my house where I am now.” I told them I couldn’t because I wouldn’t be able to afford it. They also want me to buy my house. Dollar General offers competitive wages, benefits, training, development, and career opportunities for its employees at its distribution centers, stores, and Store Support Center. In an email, a Dollar General spokesperson stated that part-time sales associates could be promoted within six months to become a sales manager and assistant store manager within one year. According to the statement, approximately 10,000 Dollar General store managers have been promoted within the company. The spokesperson stated that Dollar General believes the best currency to attract and retain talent is the chance to build a long-term career. The franchise announced in March that it would open 975 additional stores this year, including one in Mississippi. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the Raise the Wage Act of 2019. This would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. It also creates standards that ensure future minimum wage increases are in line with national trends. Oxfam estimates that raising minimum wage to $15 per hour would lead to pay increases for almost half a million Mississippi workers. 396,000 of these workers will earn less than $15/hour in 2024, if the wage is not raised. Data from the Economic Policy Institute (a D.C.-based think tank with labor union backing) was used in the Oxfam report. The model’s Minimum Wage Simulation Model, which is based on data from Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Congressional Budget Office, was also used. According to the study, impacted workers account for nearly half of Mississippi’s working mothers and 60% of Mississippi’s single-parent families. These low-wage workers also raise 30 percent of all Mississippi children. Oxfam found that the percentage of constituents in states represented by two Republicans (such as Mississippi) would benefit more from a rise in the minimum wage. It leaves us scratching and perplexed. Babic asked, “Why are they resisting to passing a rise?” Mississippi’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Bennie Thompson supports a minimum wage increase. “American workers have waited too much for a raise. Ty James, Thompson’s spokesperson said that while the cost of living has risen exponentially, workers’ wages have not. Employment Policies Institute, a PR firm representing the restaurant industry, is a strong opponent to raising the minimum wage. It has used research to show that employers will be forced out. Ron Aldridge (lobbyist and Mississippi State Director for the National Federation of Independent Business), said that it is a killer for small businesses. “If you do a great job, you won’t stay there (at minimum wage) for very long.” Darrin Webb, a state economist, stated that economic theory states that when labor costs rise, demand falls. This means that a wage increase will lead to fewer jobs. Webb stated in an email that studies supporting a minimum wage hike “make no sense from an economic theory perspective.” Mississippi’s Republican representatives have not supported a federal wage rise. U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde Smith “believes that state and local leaders can determine the best wage policies for their citizens” and businesses. If the Senate does decide to address the issue of minimum wage, it must carefully consider how such legislation will affect small businesses and rural areas,” Chris Callegos, a spokesperson representing Hyde-Smith. He was the only Republican member in the Washington delegation that responded to Mississippi Today’s requests to comment. A regional minimum wage would be established based on the cost of living. This proposal could attract more Republican support. A minimum wage would be set for each region. It would translate to $10-12 in purchasing power, depending on the average cost of living. The minimum wage in the lowest-cost areas of the country, like Mississippi, would increase to $9.80. This would translate to $11.88 in purchasing strength in the Jackson metro. During the 2019 legislative session, wages for approximately 27,000 Mississippi state workers and more than 31,000 public educators — who each earned an average salary close to $38,000 and $45,000 respectively — were at the forefront of discussion. The majority received modest increases of 3 percent or $1,500 per year. Nine bills that addressed private sector wages were introduced by Democrats in Congress, including one that would allow citizens to vote about whether the state minimum wage should be increased. However, they died in committee without any debate. Republican Reps. Donnie Bell (Republican) and Mark Baker (Republican) chair the committees where most bills were double-referred. They are Workforce Development and Judiciary A. Baker is a candidate to be attorney general. Baker claimed that his committee didn’t receive any bills because they weren’t from the first assigned committee chaired Bell. He did not return calls to Mississippi Today. Baker stated that he would have killed any of the bills if they had arrived at his committee. He said raising the minimum wage would make Mississippi less competitive and reduce the number of jobs. Baker also stated that the cost of living would increase, which would be counterproductive to any benefits for workers. “Employers can decide how to compensate employees. Baker stated that employees will seek out other opportunities if they are not paid a fair wage compared to their worth. Baker stated that if a business is paying workers more than their value, it will lose money. A minimum wage mandate would disrupt the free market. This allows wages to be determined based on productivity or profit. The market isn’t perfect. Sometimes the market can become distorted. Walley stated that Mississippi has a distorted marketplace in the sense that there is a large number of Mississippians without any skills. Are there jobs that require very little skill? Ward would make approximately $1,250 per month in take-home pay at $15 an hour if she worked her current schedule. Considering Mississippi Today’s estimated reduction
The bump would provide her with just over $300 more monthly income. “In this scenario, would raising the minimum wage improve her quality life? Cox agreed. Is she going to get out of poverty? Ward says she doesn’t think so. She cites one major financial goal she believes she could achieve with a higher income, which is home ownership. She said, “That’s what the American dream is.” We want more for our families and ourselves than what we get and do. We want it to be our reality. She said that she really does. Eric J. Shelton/Report For America Ward stated that she had already considered ways to manage her larger income. She could pay more each month than her monthly house note to increase her equity and build her home’s value more quickly. This opportunity was not found through her search at the unemployment office. Mississippi Works is a workforce initiative that allows employers to post job listings. It is supported by a search engine. The website had around 40,000 job openings in 15,127 job postings as of May (the Department of Employment Security which manages the search engine explained that some listings have multiple openings). This is how state leaders in Mississippi use the number of available positions to promote job growth and the belief that everyone can get a job. Mississippi Today found that at least 1,850 of the job listings, which is more than 12 percent, were for Dollar General jobs. We manually counted the listings in the search engine. A further 10% of the listings are for positions at Dominos (230), Pizza Hut (544), and McDonald’s (719). There are 15 Walmart job openings on the site. Walmart recently increased its starting salary to $11 an hour. It is the largest private employer of Mississippi and 21 other states according to 24/7 Wall St. Other companies are replacing these cashier jobs with automated checkout machines. Ward stated that Nissan is the only company that is doing good in my area. “But the hours that they have, it’s impossible for me to do it because my daughter.” A Nissan plant is located north of Jackson in Canton and employs approximately 6,000 people. It opened in 2003. Mississippi Works job listings for Nissan production line jobs show that they pay between $13.46 to $14.21 an hour. In March, the plant laid off more that 380 contract workers. Mississippi’s strategy was to buy better-paying jobs by offering incentives to businesses like Nissan to locate in the state and then to train Mississippians to do those jobs. Walley stated, “That’s a valid strategy. It’s just how long we can do it and how many job can we buy.” The $8.50 an-hour drone pay is more than $3 below a living wage for one person without children in Jackson. To put this in perspective, it would take him 600 years to earn as much as Vasos (the Dollar General CEO) made in 2018. According to filings made with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Vasos earned $10.6 million last fiscal year. Drones would have to pay $736 market rent for a Jackson one-bedroom apartment. This would take up more than half of Drones’ $1,200 monthly take home pay. He lives in West Jackson with his mother. Drones was 19 when he received unpaid traffic tickets. Officials suspended Drones’ driver license several years back. He hopes to stay at Dollar General for long enough to be able to pay off his court debts of thousands of dollars, which he owes due to missing court dates. He can then renew his driver’s licence and enroll in a commercial driving license program. He hopes that a career as a truck driver will bring him decent income, and even more, the opportunity to travel around Mississippi. Eric J. Shelton was a senior at high school when a reporter from Mississippi Today/Report For America asked him what kind of job he wanted to work for. My mom said to me that if you love what your do, you will never have to work a single day of your life. Drones stated that the problem is that Drones doesn’t know what Drones loves. “I still need money, but I need out of Jackson. So it led me to truck driving.” Mississippi’s average heavy truck driver earns $41,900. Ward’s options are limited. Ward lost her job at the state hospital and she drew all her unemployment. This ends 26 weeks later. She also drained her state pension. Ward stated that she cannot think about retiring now. She focuses every morning on getting up and getting her daughter ready for school. Then she heads off to work. “I know that if I dwell on it too much, it will make me miserable. I cannot bear to get into that mindset about what I shoulda, coulda, shoulda. Ward stated, “I just keep going.”