By Thao Lam. Originally published on Capital & Main on March 3, 2014.
A man wearing the uniform and cap of a fast-food worker, his apron tucked into a pant pocket, approached a clerk at the Alameda County Social Service Agency. As he handed over documents for his public assistance benefits claim, the man explained how it had felt to be waiting in the lobby for the past several hours:
“I was the first here and the last to leave.”
“You should get a pay check!” the clerk responded.
The reality is that this man does “get a paycheck” from his minimum wage job, but finds himself unable to meet his basic needs. This is a common scene at my office in Oakland and public assistance offices across the country.
This month’s National Association of Social Workers’ theme is “All People Matter,” chosen to remind us of our profession’s commitment to improving social conditions for all. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, large settlement houses worked towards improving labor conditions. Chicago’s Hull House, for example, provided a space for unions to meet and the Hull House workers (our social work predecessors) worked with low-wage workers.
Today the typical American employed at a minimum wage job is not the traditional teenager enjoying a first job. Instead, he’s an adult displaced in the economy – and more than likely, a parent. The head of household who works full time at minimum wage to support his or her family can still live in poverty. This is because the wages are so low that a family of four with one primary wage earner at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (or even the higher current California minimum wage of $8) still lives below the poverty line. How can that be possible? Or rather, how can this be permissible?
In California the family with the full-time minimum wage worker qualifies for some form of public assistance for purchasing food (from the CalFresh program), health care (Medi-Cal), home energy costs (LIHEAP) or cash block grants (CalWORKs). The minimum wage worker may be someone you know and, with just one unfortunate event, it could even be you.
What better way is there for social workers to be true to their history than to support the minimum wage and living wage campaigns that are blooming in our own communities today? Two cities I’ve called home have such campaigns. In Los Angeles, Raise LA, a $15.37 hourly living wage campaign for hotel workers employed at larger hotels, is now underway. (On February 25 the L.A. City Council called for a study to gauge the economic impact of such a raise.) In Oakland, a coalition of community and labor organizations is working to place the Lift Up Oakland campaign for a $12.25 hourly minimum wage and paid sick days on the November ballot.
We as social workers and, more importantly, as members of our communities, need to be involved in these campaigns. If we belong to unions, we need to ask our locals to support the campaign and as members, we need to join the campaign. For Los Angeles County social workers in particular, the recent contract campaign was successful because community organizations and other unions supported their cause.
As voters, we need to contact politicians to express our support and insistence that full-time workers cannot continue to live in poverty and that we expect their support of the living or minimum wage initiatives, or we won’t vote to reelect them. As consumers, we need to tell low-wage businesses that we will no longer permit them to utilize public assistance as a subsidy. As community members we need talk to, and enlist, people to volunteer to collect petition signatures and to vote.
Social work is not limited to one month, but is our daily work with others in our communities. It is our collective history and responsibility to improve social conditions because all people matter.
(Thao N. Lam is an Oakland social worker.)