Still Struggling to Make Ends Meet: A report on living wages in Washington State


July 2018

Workers across the country face difficulties making ends meet; the same is true in Washington State. Two years ago, in an attempt to help the minimum wage keep pace with increased cost of living, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 1433. While that provided a much-need- ed boost to the state’s minimum wage, workers and their families continue to struggle with a wage that doesn’t allow them to meet all of their needs.

While Initiative 1433 has increased the minimum wage faster than would have occurred with previous inflation-based adjustments, the state minimum wage still falls short of a living wage.

A living wage is the amount a full-time worker must be paid in order to make ends meet, including setting aside money for emergencies and for some savings. In Washington State, the statewide living wage for a single adult is $17.85 per hour, or $37,123.06 per year, far exceeding the current state minimum wage of $11.50. A worker with no dependents who is paid minimum wage must work 62.1 hours per week to make ends meet.

For working families with children, the cost of living is even greater. Statewide, a single adult with two children must be paid $34.90 per hour or more to make ends meet. Even in a two-parent family with two children, where both parents are working, each parent needs to be paid at least $22.06 per hour to meet all of their family’s needs.

Download the Full Report (pdf)

Collective Bargaining is a Valuable Tool for Workers to Make Ends Meet

Working full-time should allow workers to make ends meet; instead, many workers across the country continue to be paid wages that leave them living paycheck-to-paycheck. As we’ve shown in our Job Gap Economic Prosperity Series since 1999, a living wage is well above the minimum wage that too many workers are paid.

Our recent report, “Low Wage Nation,” shows that nearly half of new jobs are low-wage jobs. In October, we will release a new installment showing that a living wage across the country is well above the federal minimum wage, and above state minimum wages.

But, the question remains, what needs to be done so that workers are paid a living wage?

One policy recommendation is to increase the minimum wage nationwide, lifting the wage floor for all workers. Another recommendation is to strengthen unions and support collective bargaining efforts by workers, especially in occupations that have not traditionally been unionized or have seen resistance from employers, such as fast food and retail.

The Alliance for a Just Society believes that all jobs should be good jobs, and unions are strong tools for making that a reality.

Union members earn higher wages than non-union members, and the gender wage gap is less for unionized workplaces than it is for those that are not unionized. In addition, though, unions put upward pressure on wages for all workers – even those whose workplaces are not unionized.

Furthermore, collective bargaining can also help lower the cost of living, making it easier for working families to make ends meet. Union efforts have helped workers gain access to affordable health insurance and retirement funds, including pensions.

Benefits like paid sick leave and paid family leave make sure that workers are paid while they care for their own health and when they care for their families.

As worker-led organizing like the Fight for 15 and Our Walmart have shown, workers in fast food and retail face harsh opposition to higher wages, workplace protections, access to health insurance, fair scheduling, and more. It is no surprise that workers in the Fight for 15 movement trying to make ends meet now ask not only for a $15 wage – but for $15 and a union.

In Weighing Racial Discrimination, Consider Outcome, Not Just Intent

In the last two weeks, the Supreme Court handed down some monumental decisions: health care subsidies were upheld, ensuring millions will continue to see the benefits of the Affordable Care Act; and marriage equality became the law of the land, allowing LGBTQI people to marry. But, there was another major decision tucked in there, too: in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., et al, the Supreme Court affirmed that it is not the intent of racial discrimination that matters, but the impact.

In some instances, rules may be in place that appear to be colorblind or even prevent racial discrimination, but racial bias and racist actions still lead to disparate impact. This was the case in Seattle, where the city’s Office for Civil Rights uncovered evidence of discrimination at 13 rental properties across the city. There, prospective tenants were treated differently depending on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or national origin. Such discrimination is not limited to housing, of course; people of color, especially, are discriminated against in nearly all areas of life, including policing, employment, and childhood education.

When we envision discrimination, we typically think of situations like these where it comes from individuals and leads to a broader impact on people of color.

However, the recent Supreme Court decision centered on a case where funds designed in part to combat segregation were distributed so that they instead contributed to continuing segregation. Here, it was not racist individuals or racial bias that led to such disparate impact; it was, instead, a lack of recognizing that impact and thinking strategically about alternatives that could better counter the existing segregation.

This short-sightedness and lack of a racial justice lens led to a concentration of low-income housing in communities of color, contributing to, rather than changing a system that ghettoizes low-income communities of color.

On July 8, President Obama announced stricter rules against housing segregation, including requiring local governments to account for “how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities.” This is an important step in helping local governments avoid the short-sighted actions that occurred in Texas, and could make significant progress in addressing the concentration of poverty in communities of color.

However, we must recognize that systemic and economic racism are entwined within more aspects of our society than housing. Expecting a housing fix to assure we avoid the 1968 prophecy noted by Justice Kennedy that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and un-equal” would itself be short-sighted. Instead, we must seek to recognize, call out, and address all policies and actors that, intentionally or not, perpetuate a system of economic racism. Whether in health outcomes, voting rights, policing, higher education, employment, or nearly any other area, policies and actions must take into account their impact on people of color in order to dismantle to a system of economic racism that has existed in this country for far too long.