States Must Do More to Support Workers and Families

“Get a Better Job!” “Get an Education!” “Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps!”

Too often when workers struggle to make ends meet, these are the messages they hear. Unfortunately, these messages set unrealistic expectations.

Rather than creating an environment that helps ensure working families can succeed, too many states set up systems that that work against workers and their families. Over the past month and a half, the Alliance for a Just Society has released “Rigged to Fail” state report cards in nine states (Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New York, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington) that show just how difficult it is to get by when policies work against you.

Previous reports in the Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series focused primarily on specific wage levels needed to make ends meet. In contrast, the “Rigged to Fail” report cards focus on the premise that there are a variety of reasons that working families are unable to thrive – beyond low wages. Some of those reasons include tax systems that let those with high incomes off the hook, unchecked predatory lending, state investments that do not ensure high wages, and state disinvestment in higher education.

While moving the minimum wage closer to a living wage is a vital piece of ensuring that workers can support themselves and their families, it is not a magic bullet that will leave all families prospering. Instead, an array of state policies determine the playing field for workers, and whether all workers have an equal shot at being able to thrive.

The “Rigged to Fail” reports look at 25 indicators and whether states’ policies support working families or hinder their chance of success. Of the nine states studied, eight received a failing grade and the remaining state, Washington, received a D-. Simply put, these states are failing workers.

Even states that scored relatively well in some areas scored poorly in others, focusing on one aspect of workers’ lives while seemingly ignoring the fact that workers depend not only on wages, or worker supports, or on a fair and progressive tax structure, but all three areas.

New York, for example, received a relatively high score for its tax structure and received a C+ in supports for working families, but its low minimum wage compared to the cost of living, tipped subminimum wage (which was recently increased, but is still below the minimum wage for non-tipped workers), and poor outcomes for women and people of color left it with a failing grade.

Similarly, while the state of Washington received a B+ for its supports for working families, the state’s claim as the “most unfair state and local tax system in the country” and a low score on jobs and wages left it squeaking by with a final grade of D-; a grade which no one would point to as success.

And yet, there is hope. Most of the 25 indicators included in the reports had at least one state scoring high marks, showing that it is possible to receive a high grade and truly support workers and their families, and coalitions have pushed for and seen progress on indicators like the tipped subminimum wage in New York and in expanding Medicaid in Montana just before that state’s report release.

But, states cannot focus on only one area of workers’ lives while ignoring the impact of other policies on families’ ability to make ends meet. Progress in a single area, like increasing wages, will not move a state’s grade from failure to success.

Only by taking a holistic approach and recognizing that working families need jobs with higher wages and good benefits, protections from predatory lending, and a fair and progressive tax structure that funds a broad range of worker and family supports, can states ensure that workers have a fair chance at success.