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Living Wage Law Would Create Benefits for Business, City's Economy

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

John PetroIn response to the hottest legislative issue in City Hall right now, the Daily News ran two opinion pieces on a bill that would guarantee living wages to all workers at city-subsidized development projects. This would mean that if a developer receives city tax breaks or other assistance to build a mall, for example, the retail workers, janitors, parking attendants, and any other employee at that mall would be paid at least $10 an hour with health benefits, or $11.50 an hour without benefits.

The principle behind the bill is simple: the city should only use taxpayer dollars to create high-quality jobs. Subsidizing the creation of poverty-level jobs makes little economic or fiscal sense. After all, it already costs the state at least $5.2 billion to provide services and assistance to the working poor. Why should we use scarce tax dollars to subsidize development that will only add to these public costs?

In a piece filled with false assumptions and unsupported claims, Diana Furchtgott-Roth argues that guaranteeing the creation of good jobs will actually hurt the city’s economy and its taxpayers. Not only is the living wage in Furchtgott-Roth’s crosshairs, but also the prevailing wage and even the minimum wage. In other words, Furchtgott-Roth rejects the idea that government should regulate the labor market.

Clearly there are good reasons for government to do exactly that, not just in the name of altruism but for the sake of the taxpayer, the business climate, and the city’s overall economy. In 1960, speaking to members of Congress, President John F. Kennedy noted that, “The increases in purchasing power resulting from a higher minimum wage will help to restore consumer demand required to put our idle industrial capacity back to work.”

Even in China, which built its economy on low-cost labor, cities are passing new laws that boost worker wages in order to increase the purchasing power of Chinese households and to create domestic demand for Chinese goods and services.

But the discussion about wages and business in New York City has become so backward that the real and demonstrable benefits of boosting wages for the city’s economy has become lost in a sea of misinformation.

Take Furchtgott-Roth’s piece. The living wage bill will, according to the author: stall development, cause businesses to flee the city, waste taxpayer money, and increase unemployment. Notably absent was any evidence to support these claims.

In reality, living wage laws have not had any significant negative impact on businesses in the over 120 cities that have passed these laws. In Santa Fe, New Mexico every single worker within city borders is guaranteed by city law to be paid a living wage. This is, by far, a much more ambitious bill than what is currently under consideration in New York City, where only workers at subsidized buildings will be covered. And yet, a study by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business and Economic Research has shown that since Santa Fe passed its living wage law there has been no demonstrable negative effects on employment or firm growth. Studies of other cities with living wage laws have demonstrated similar results.

Despite the evidence the living wage bill in New York City is strongly opposed by Mayor Bloomberg and real estate interests. This is because the bill challenges the current economic development status quo. Instead of promoting the types of projects that create the most wealth for a select group of developers, the bill would ensure that working New Yorkers benefit directly from the city’s economic development efforts

About The Author: John Petro is an urban policy analyst at the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. He runs the Progressive Urban Model Policies (PUMP) Project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to organize and share best practices in policy design and implementation. His writing on urban issues has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and his recent research has been covered in Politico, The New York Times, Reuters, and other media outlets.

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