Is there dignity in low wage work? Of course there is – there is dignity in work! But let’s get real for a moment. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s Budget Calculator (http://www.epi.org/resources/budget/), a family of four (4), two working parents, would require $62,268 to meet basic living expenses in Adams County. A single parent with two children would require $54,358. This is similar to what we find when we ask groups all across our counties. For a family of three the numbers range from $49,000 - $78,000 depending on the group. And yet we know wages in our local community, for service and agricultural work, are between $15,000 and $30,000 per year. Based on our research, a family of three would have to work 3.6 minimum wage jobs to meet basic living expenses. That is 3.6 full time, minimum wage jobs!
So what is dignity? One definition is “The state or quality of being worthy of honor.” In fact, following the definition was this sentence “The dignity of manual labor.” Interesting.
I believe there is dignity in work, and I have a deep appreciation of those that work so my life can be easier – the people who go to work at convenience stores, restaurants, cleaning people, those working at Amazon so I can get my Prime Package in “only 2 days”. And yet, I know, because I work with those folks on a daily basis, that most of those folks are low wage earners. Working incredibly hard, but struggling to earn enough to make ends meet. Frequently with few or no benefits. Frequently no PTO or Sick Leave. Frequently little or no personal meaning in the work. And when you work in those conditions, when there is constantly not enough, life becomes more chaotic. If your car breaks down, or the kids get sick, or your evening child care provider backs out – it is incredibly impactful to your ability to stay above water. You may lose everything you have because of what might be a bump in the road for others. Do you get to go on vacation? Can you enroll your children in extracurricular activities? Can you own a home? Can you even live in a safe apartment? Can you have cable without people judging you? And if you, though you are working full time or more than full time, still qualify for SNAP benefits (food stamps) can you shop without judgement? The answer to most of those question is no.
There will always be a need for low wage earners – people who are working just as hard as you and I, for lower wages. Often times working more hours at hard physical labor for low wages. They have no retirement, no pension, no 401K. They work in jobs that impact their bodies and health – how long can you work at a factory stacking boxes. What happens when your body can’t do it anymore? How do you support yourself then, because Social Security is still years away?
Look around tomorrow as you go about your day. Take a look at all the people in your path, working hard in low wage jobs – frequently at more than one low wage job so they can support themselves and their families. And for many of those people, the jobs they work for the entirety of their life, will be low wage jobs. This is us, right? This is our community. How do we treat people in our daily interactions? How do we talk about and value their work? We didn’t choose who are parents were, where we were born, or the aptitudes and talents we received. Where we come from matters – it may not determine all of our future, but it certainly determines how hard the path to success is. So how can we make sure there is dignity in low wage work?