Why Wages Matter in the Fight to End Hunger
In this guest post, Christine Binder of WhyHunger‘s National Hunger Clearinghouse reflects on thinking beyond charity this holiday season.
The holiday season is a time of giving. More now than any other time of year, people feel compelled to donate their time and resources to organizations that feed the hungry. With hunger at the forefront of people’s minds this season, we have a real opportunity to further the conversation and engage people in advocacy addressing the root causes of both hunger and poverty to create lasting change.
According to MIT professor Amy Glasmeier, “At the core, hunger is the result of employment instability and the lack of an adequate minimum wage. If an employer is allowed to pay a person a wage that essentially does not lift them out of poverty, then the real culprit is failed federal policy.” The annual income (at 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year) of someone earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is $15,080, which, for a family of two, falls just below the federal poverty line. Nearly 16 percent of Americans fall at or below the poverty line. Many retail and food service employers systematically manipulate worker schedules in order to deny them the benefits of full term employment.
Last month, workers from the three largest employers of low-income workers in the U.S. (Walmart, Yum! Brands and McDonald’s) went on strike. On Black Friday, hundreds, if not thousands, of Walmart employees walked off the job and joined protests in 100 cities across 46 states to raise their voices against low pay, lack of benefits and retribution against workers who attempt to organize. Six days later, fast food workers in New York City went on strike for union recognition and a raise in pay. Campaigns for paid sick days for restaurant workers are also gaining momentum.
Civic engagement is critical in building support for a living wage, which would allow workers to maintain a decent standard of living (adequate food, shelter and other necessities) without having to resort to public assistance. On Election Day, the citizens of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Jose, California, voted to increase the minimum wage, and voters in Long Beach, California, instituted a living wage for hotel workers. Before Thanksgiving, anti-hunger advocates in New York pushed for minimum wage increases, as the State Senate there may vote on the issue in the lame duck session. And on December 17th, the New Jersey Assembly passed a measure to start a process to increase that state’s minimum wage by one dollar.
These recent wins are a promising sign. However, until a living wage is instituted nationwide for all workers, many of the working poor must continue to rely on SNAP (formally known as food stamps). Food stamps do not “end hunger,” but they are essential in helping low-income workers make ends meet. Any cutbacks in the program would make it much harder for SNAP recipients to feed their families. As the fiscal cliff approaches, it is important that we advocate to protect SNAP and those who rely on it, but perhaps the most important thing we can advocate for in a time when the ranks of the working poor exceed 47 million is a national living wage that keeps up with inflation. If ending hunger is your mission, embracing higher wages for the working poor might just be your game.