Approximately one million people in Brooklyn are employed, but many of their jobs do not pay very well. Nearly one in five people in the workforce toil in the retail and service sector. These jobs typically pay at or just above the minimum wage. But the cost of living in Brooklyn and throughout New York City continues to skyrocket—it has nearly tripled since the 1980s.
So Brooklyn is now seeing record growth in the number of working poor residents and households. According to the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity, 23.4 percent of Brooklyn’s population currently lives below poverty level. And a whopping 15.2 percent of Brooklyn’s population makes less than $15,000 annually.
“Individuals who have lived in the area for years see the cost of living increase without the same change to their wages,” says Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin, who represents Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint, parts of Williamsburg, Park Slope, and Boerum Hill. “Too many working men and women not only in my district but across New York City earn a wage well below the federal poverty limit. It is everyone’s right, not a privilege, to earn a living wage.”
With elected officials, religious leaders, labor leaders, and community organizers, Levin is advocating for more sustainable jobs. Living Wage NYC—a coalition assembled and guided by the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that includes a number of groups across the city—has been urging the City Council to enact the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, a bill introduced in May 2010. The legislation would require all economic development projects receiving more than $100,000 in taxpayer-funded subsidies to provide jobs that pay at least $10 per hour plus healthcare benefits or $11.50 per hour without benefits. A majority of council members support the bill and a hearing is set for May 12.
“This coalition has gained a lot of grassroots and political momentum over the past year,” said Ava Farkas, one of the main RWDSU organizers on the campaign. “With such a high level of enthusiasm from people in Brooklyn and throughout the city, we see this living wage movement growing stronger every day.”
The coalition formed out of a hard-fought battle against the Bloomberg administration’s plan to convert the Kingsbridge Armory in the northwest Bronx into a poverty-wage shopping mall. The project’s lead developer, the Related Companies, was slated to receive more than $60 million in taxpayer subsidies for the project. The City Council voted against the project in December 2009 after Mayor Bloomberg refused to allow the Related Companies to negotiate with community and labor leaders over the terms of a Community Benefits Agreement, which included a guarantee that workers at the Armory be paid a living wage.
Supporters of the Fair Wages Act argue that the living wage bill is fiscally necessary public policy, especially at a time when our cash-strapped city is trying to make better use of limited resources. They point out that subsidized economic development projects often include commercial properties where retailers and service companies lease space. Retail and service jobs within those projects will be directly affected by the bill. The Bloomberg administration opposes it.
Critics claim that requiring living wages on subsidized economic development projects will stall growth. They argue that developers will refuse to pursue projects with such requirements because they will not be able to find tenants or service contractors willing to pay a living wage. But the well-documented experiences of many other cities that have implemented living wage standards show that opponents are driven by ideological views about government’s role in the market, not the facts on the ground.
A recent landmark study by the Center for American Progress (CAP), “Creating Good Jobs in Our Communities: How Higher Wage Standards Affect Economic Development and Employment,” provides a comprehensive national analysis of job growth in cities that extend living wage laws to their economic development projects. Analyzing nearly 20 years of data, the study reveals that cities around the country have successfully incorporated living wage standards into economic development projects without harming employment growth or business growth. It puts to rest the real estate lobby’s claims that living wage policies have impeded job growth by creating an “anti-development” business climate.
Nearly $2 billion in taxpayer money is spent every year on economic development subsidies, yet most non-managerial jobs created with that money are low-wage, according to a recent report issued jointly by the National Employment Law Project, Fiscal Policy Institute, and Good Jobs New York. The finding was not so surprising: no uniform living wage standard is attached to the subsidies. Instead, wage levels are determined on an ad-hoc basis. Big subsidized projects like the redevelopment of Coney Island and the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront have included wage standards, but many others have not.
According to the bill’s proponents, establishing a uniform living wage standard would make it clearer to developers and companies what is involved in doing business with the city, and let taxpayers know what they can expect when their money is invested. With the city providing substantial public subsidies to shopping centers, sports stadiums, and office buildings, there is no telling how many developments are likely to spring up in the coming years. Supporters say the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act would ensure that taxpayers get a higher return on their investment in the city’s economic future, and that more local residents working in retail and service jobs are lifted out of poverty and able to worry less about survival.
Dr. H. DeVore Chapman, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Boerum Hill, is intimately familiar with the anxiety and anguish generated by the struggles low-wage workers must endure in order to survive. “Many times I come across members [of my church] who have to work two jobs just to make ends meet, but they can’t find a second job. These are people that not only need jobs, but they need a better wage at the jobs they have,” Rev. Chapman said.
On the evening of April 4 at Bethel Baptist Church, Pastor Chapman joined Councilman Levin, along with Brooklyn council members including Jumaane Williams, Letitia James, and Brad Lander, and a few hundred local residents, for a rousing service to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy on the anniversary of his death. Earlier that day, Dr. King’s eldest living son, Martin Luther King III, made news by mentioning the event in a public statement and endorsing the living wage bill. He reminded the media that his father died while fighting for living wage jobs and that New York City was continuing his unfinished work.
James, who represents Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, parts of Crown Heights, Prospect Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, stood up in front of the hundreds in attendance and delivered a stirring speech, vowing to “stand up for those who have to make a decision between paying their rent and paying their bills” because New York “needs, demands, and should have a living wage, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Williams, who represents Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, parts of Midwood, and Canarsie, was unequivocal: “Everybody has the right to subsist. You shouldn’t make money off the backs of people when they’re starving.” From memory, he preached parts of Dr. King’s famous 1968 sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” in an intonation remarkably similar to King’s own, much to the crowd’s delight.
In another dramatic moment, the church went dark and people in the pews held up candles that cast a solemn glow. Rev. Chapman said this was significant because it led to an extended moment of silence in which attendees could come to “a full realization of what King was doing when he was murdered.”
Later Rev. Chapman suggested that the gathering was part of an ongoing effort to raise awareness of the living wage campaign in the faith community in Brooklyn and beyond. Clergy all over the city are now advocating for the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act as part of the Living Wage NYC Faith Caucus. In addition to Rev. Chapman, some of the most active leaders within the Faith Caucus in Brooklyn include Rev. Robert Waterman of Antioch Baptist Church, Rev. Edison Bond of the Citadel of Praise and Worship, and Rev. Eddie Karim of United Baptist Church.
“We are trying to make sure that the awareness is not just from the people who need a living wage, but also from those who make the decisions. Our work comes with a passion of urgency—people don’t need a living wage later, they need it now,” Chapman said.
Living Wage NYC also includes a number of Brooklyn-based and citywide groups that want to create a more just and equitable city, including the Brooklyn Food Coalition, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), Fifth Avenue Committee, and New York Communities for Change (NYCC). These groups understand that the city’s aggressive pro-development agenda means that more taxpayer-subsidized projects will likely soon be built in Brooklyn and elsewhere in the city, and that the stakes are high for many residents, especially those with the lowest incomes, whose wages continue to stagnate.
“If we keep people poor there’s no chance, we’re dooming them to a poverty existence,” said Scott Roseboro, a member of NYCC, which is active in the poorest parts of Brooklyn, including places like East New York. One East New York resident I spoke to named Med recently worked full time at a Shoemania store in Manhattan where he was making $8 per hour. Med recalls that he only earned enough “to buy a MetroCard, eat, and pay the phone bill,” depending on public assistance such as food stamps and Medicaid to fill in the gaps. While he held that job, his hopes of going to school and building a future with his wife, who was employed at a supermarket making $7.25 an hour, were dashed over time.
Retail is one of the fastest growing low-wage sectors of our city’s economy, according to research by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). Contrary to popular belief, most retail workers are not teenagers in search of spending money; they are adults trying to support households. In fact, a large majority of retail workers—78 percent, according to the FPI—are 25 years or older, and half are 35 years or older.
If the city wants to ease the plight of the working poor, it has to focus on raising wages and job standards in the retail sector, the growth of which has been aided by economic development subsidies.
“All we did was work and work and work. We were struggling for many years,” Med told me, adding that he is one of many low-income people in his area. He is now volunteering with the living wage campaign. “If I made a living wage,” Med explained, “I’d be able to save money, pay the bills, and maybe go back to school. My wife and I wouldn’t have to be worried. We could do things that normal families do.”
Med’s all-too-common story has motivated elected officials like Levin to act.
“The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act will help raise wages throughout the city and ensure that long-time residents can afford to stay in Brooklyn,” Levin said the other day. “It is my hope that it will also increase the standards of wages throughout the city, not just on publicly-funded job sites.”
As Living Wage NYC mobilizes its diverse base of supporters to participate in a major City Hall rally and City Council hearing on May 12, Brooklynites remain optimistic that the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act will move forward and have a positive effect on the borough and ultimately in communities across the city.
“This fight is going to make a big difference in a lot of peoples’ lives,” Med said.
DIANE KRAUTHAMER is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, and has published in The Indypendent and Labor Notes. She holds a Master's degree in Media Studies from the New School, and a Graduate Certificate in Labor Studies from CUNY.