Michele Mattingly writes an interesting essay on the cost of living in NYC-and utilizes a, "Self-Sufficiency Standard," as a guide: "Last week saw the release of the 2010 New York City Self-Sufficiency Standard, a report that determines how much it takes to get by in the city. The report looks at the cost of basic needs: housing, child care, food, health care, and transportation. A modest allowance is made for miscellaneous items such as clothing and telephone service, and the impact of taxes and tax credits is accounted for. The Standard's budget assumes no private or public sources of support, save for tax credits."
So, what does this guide tell us? It underscores that for many New Yorkers-but particularly for those in the retail sector-wages are lagging behind the rising cost of living: "So, how does New York City measure up with respect to wage adequacy? Wages for many workers haven't been keeping up and are far from adequate. The report found that the Self-Sufficiency Standard for a family with two adults, one preschooler, and one school-aged child rose by 33 percent across the city between 2000 and summer 2009. Contrast this with a 16 percent increase (not adjusted for inflation) in the typical earnings of a New York City resident over this same period."
And the gap is really pronounced in the retail sector: "Retail salespersons represent the most prevalent occupation for the city's residents, with more than 100,000 New Yorkers holding one of these positions. Yet median wages for these workers are only 77 percent of the Self-Sufficiency Standard for a single Brooklyn adult. In other words, half of retail salespersons fall below 77 percent of the Standard."
It is important to remember that the standard represents a bare bones budget and, even so, retail employment can't support even that: "The findings of the report imply a stark future for the city if most of its largest occupations do not pay median wages that allow an adult employed full-time to meet basic needs, let alone to support a family. Public policy in recent years has stressed the primacy of employment over public support to address poverty, yet too many of New York's jobs simply do not pay enough for workers to raise themselves and their families to a modest standard of living."
In spite of this rather stark reality, the Bloombergistas continue to promote, you guessed it, retail jobs as its major economic development tool-and are using scarce tax dollars to do it. Hectoring workers to upgrade their skills, while good advice, is not sufficient: "The findings of the report imply a stark future for the city if most of its largest occupations do not pay median wages that allow an adult employed full-time to meet basic needs, let alone to support a family. Public policy in recent years has stressed the primacy of employment over public support to address poverty, yet too many of New York's jobs simply do not pay enough for workers to raise themselves and their families to a modest standard of living."
Which brings us to the question of living wage-and Mattingly weighs in with gusto: "Legislation, such as the recently-introduced Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, that requires a wage floor for recipients of some of the city's generous economic development subsidies and their tenants, is a start. When the city uses public resources to subsidize retail malls and commercial office buildings, it should not subsidize low-wage employers."
But that is exactly what it is doing in the Flushing Commons project, a development that will at the same time put over 2,000 mom and pop retailers at risk because of its conveyance (destruction, more like) of the local municipal parking lot over to a private developer at a below market rate. And since the project is IDA eligible, there will be no stopping additional tax monies from being lavished on the developer for the loss of a vital public amenity.
And, even though we aren't the president's biggest fan, we would encourage him to follow the advice of Chris Edley, and link federal contracts with a living wage provision. A simple flourish of the president's pen in an executive order would do the trick: "With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could do more for the economy than the second stimulus measure that's going nowhere fast. He can create the good jobs our economy needs by using the power of federal contracting to reward employers that improve job standards. An executive order to encourage federal contractors to provide their workers with, among other things, a living wage, would require no legislation, no battle in Congress."
The principle here is clear. If the public money is going to enrich contractors and developers, the workers need to be paid. And in the City of New York, it is up to the city council to say No to the loss of an important public parking resource; No to the destruction of the immigrant entrepreneur base of Flushing; and No to the economic development philosophy that aggrandizes wealthy developers at the expense of retail workers.