The resolution had no price tag. It did not promise to spend nor demand any tax dollars.
The three-page document, introduced at Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting, was merely a strongly worded suggestion, urging three public employers to pay their workers at least $15 an hour, just as the City of Memphis and Shelby County government have recently done.
The non-binding resolution echoed the request made nearly 51 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed when he came to Memphis to bring attention to the labor campaign of underpaid and mistreated public employees, striking black sanitation workers. It even quoted the slain civil rights leader, who wrote: “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age.”
But not a year after the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, the commission’s Republican contingent, all of whom are white, declined to back the resolution. Commissioners Mark Billingsley, David Bradford, Mick Wright and Amber Mills voted against the resolution. Brandon Morrison abstained out of concern that a higher minimum wage doesn’t necessarily reduce poverty.
Morrison says she’ll be abstaining from supporting the resolution since she’s not convinced mandating a wage minimum alleviates poverty. Instead, there’s some research that says it can shutter businesses, decrease entry level jobs, etc, she says.
— Katherine Burgess〽️ (@KathsBurgess) March 25, 2019
In an email that echoed her remarks at the commission meeting, Morrison said that she supports the “concept” of encouraging employers who can to pay workers a livable wage, but she doesn’t support mandating it.
“The fight for $15 pulls at a person’s heartstrings because it sounds like it would alleviate poverty, but I am not convinced that is true,” she wrote.
“When the government mandates a wage higher than the free market demands, it destroys the number of entry level jobs, hurts small businesses, and especially harms the jobs of unskilled workers who are in the process of being trained.
“If we want a skilled workforce, this is not the way to get there. Rather than developing skills and lifting people up to higher paying skilled jobs, you essentially hold them back. Why would we want to do that? I prefer to lift our workforce up,” she said, pointing to the work of the Workforce Investment Network and job centers designed to train young people, even those without a high school diploma, for technical jobs with high five-figure salaries.
Morrison did not cite specific research to support her claim that a $15 an hour wage would not impact poverty and did not respond to a request to provide that research.
A growing body of research shows that not surprisingly, more money does ameliorate poverty. An April 2017 brief titled “Minimum wages and the distribution of family incomes in the United States” by economist Arin Dube found “robust evidence that higher minimum wages lead to increases in incomes among families at the bottom of the income distribution and that these wages reduce the poverty rate.”
An increase in the minimum wage would disproportionately affect black workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which wrote in an April 2017 report that “40.1 percent of black workers and 33.5 percent of Hispanic workers would directly or indirectly get a raise” if the minimum wage rose to $15 an hour by 2024. Shelby County is majority black and anchors the second-poorest large metro area in the nation.
The resolution called out the University of Memphis, Southwest Community College, Shelby County Schools and the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where some employees “currently earn less than $15 per hour, which is not a livable wage.” (Read more about the University of Memphis’ fight for a living wage.)
“Public institutions,” the resolution said, “have a responsibility to be ethical leaders in our community, modeling the best democratic ideals, including treating workers with dignity and paying a wage sufficient to keep workers out of poverty rather than trapping them in it.”
Public money shouldn’t subsidize poverty wages, and when it does, taxpayers pay twice — “the initial subsidy and then the food stamps, emergency medical, housing and other social services low-wage workers may require to support themselves and their families even minimally,” read the resolution sponsored by Democratic Commissioners Eddie Jones and Willie Brooks, both of whom are black. Neither responded to a request for comment.
Commission Chairman Van Turner was one of the yes votes.
“When we look at some of our challenges in the community, I think that part of the issue is that people are not making enough to live on, and they’re having to work two and three jobs to make ends meet, which means they’re not there to care for the family,” Turner said.
“And then you have all these other outcomes to result from absent parents. And it’s not that they want to be absent, but they have to work … if you paid people a living wage, they could work one job and come home and make a much more constructive home environment.”
All of the commission’s eight Democrat members — seven of whom are African-American — voted in support of the resolution. The vote was influenced more by partisan politics than racial identity, Turner said, although the two often overlap.
“Of course it’s no secret that the Democratic party and labor have been joined at the hip, and employers and corporations have been joined at the hip with the Republican party,” he said. “We don’t have any hyper-partisan issues at the county level, but on this issue, we saw it. And we were fortunate enough to have the votes on the progressive side.”
Where do we go from here? Here are four suggestions.
1. Read the resolution.
2. Catch up on the University of Memphis’ journey to paying all workers at least $15 an hour.
3. Read MLK50’s coverage of living wage issues.
4. Are you a worker? Add your voice to MLK50’s new workers series. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to participate.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.