NJ Spotlight: Small-Business Group Asserts Minimum Wage Hike Would Jeopardize Jobs

From my story today on NJ Spotlight:

Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost in New Jersey if the state’s minimum wage increases, according to a study by a small-business coalition.

The claim adds new fuel to the debate over hiking the state’s minimum wage, less than five months before voters determine the fate of a $1 increase and proposed indexing of the state’s minimum to inflation.

The study by the National Independent Business Federation says that New Jersey could lose about 31,000 small-business jobs over the next decade if the referendum question passes. The reason, according to the study, is that the wage hike and indexing would increase business costs and create a level of uncertainty for business owners about their labor expenses.

Supporters of the wage hike, however, say the study is misleading and does not account for the widespread impact that increased wages would have on the economy. The boost in income for low-wage workers will act as a stimulus, they argue, because workers earning the minimum or near the minimum will then spend money they currently do not have, which will create additional revenue for small businesses.

The minimum wage increase will be on the Nov. 5 ballot as a constitutional amendment, along with the election of the governor and the entire state Legislature.

To read the entire story, go here.

NJ Spotlight: ‘Renters: Hurricane Sandy’s Invisible Victims’

I have a story at NJ Spotlight today on the plight faced by renters displaced by Hurricane Sandy.

Steven Zitz moved to Sayreville when he was in high school and had lived in the Sayreville-South River area for the past 20 years. He had his own business as a house painter and had been working regularly despite the stagnant economy.

Superstorm Sandy changed all that.

His aunt’s house, where he was renting a room, was badly damaged. He lost his work van and has been staying with an uncle in Brooklyn since the storm, unable to work and unable to qualify for government assistance.

“I’m in a very tough spot,” he said. “My back is not only to the wall, it’s through the wall.”

Zitz is one of the thousands of renters who still find themselves scrambling to rebuild their lives. While state and federal agencies have assisted 21,000 renters, several thousand more have likely fallen through the cracks, though the number is difficult to pin down, advocates for low-income residents say. Unlike property records, such as deeds and mortgages, the state does not require that lease agreements be filed with the counties. And many landlord-tenant arrangements are informal, operating on a month-to-month basis.

State officials say they are doing what they can for renters and that the state’s recovery plan includes what the administration calls “a range of rental housing activities designed to replenish rental housing stock lost to Sandy, rehabilitate affordable rental units left uninhabitable by Sandy, and provide affordable housing for special needs populations.”

For more, read here.

When a choice amounts to no choice at all

This story from The Times of Trenton today is not about parenting, though that is the frame in which it is being reported. The story is about the difficult and dangerous decisions poor parents are forced to make everyday and the consequences they often face.

Sheena Johnson was arrested in April after police found her living in a Ewing storage locker with her two sons, ages 5 and 10. She apparently had been living with a boyfriend and, when they broke up, she found herself without a place to live. Her answer, which she now says was an error in judgment, was to move into the storage locker. She apparently had been living there for about a month when she was arrested (she also faces charges that she slashed the tires of her boyfriend’s car). According to an April 30 story in The Times,

He said the family went to restrooms at local businesses to brush their teeth and use the bathroom and were eating granola bars, applesauce and other packaged foods. Johnson told police she sometimes got a hotel room or brought the children to friends’ houses to shower, Mennuti said.

Her trial on abuse and neglect charges is supposed to start today, according to the Times. The story is a troubling one because, as the judge in the case points out, there are services available for families in need. At the same time, the reality is that most of these services are stressed beyond their limits, with shelter space now at a premium. There are also issues of trust, with many low-income families assuming the worst of social welfare agencies.

Her lawyer, Dan Toto of Lawrence Township, says

the Johnson case is fundamentally about people living outside the margins and struggling to make ends meet.

 

“She doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, she doesn’t have a drug problem, she’s just poor,” he said. “They’ve made that a crime now.”

I’m not sure I would go that far, though there are many laws on the books that make the lives of the poor more difficult than they need to be. In this case, the use of the storage locker may have seemed like an expedient way of gaining shelter, but it also was not healthy for the children. It was a bad decision on Johnson’s part, but may have been one of the few decisions available.

And that is our fault. We have made it too easy to become poor in this country, while also eviscerating the programs designed to help the poor and making sure that the stigma of poverty is debilitating. There is not enough affordable housing in New Jersey or nationally, especially for those at the lowest rungs of the income ladder, and there are not enough jobs that pay living wages, let alone poverty wages.

Sheena Johnson’s bad decision may cost her custody of her family, along with her freedom, but aren’t we culpable to some degree for creating a system in which her choices were so limited as to be almost no choice at all?

Minimum wage campaign kicks off

An NJ.com story on today’s official kick-off of Raise the Wage’s official campaign to pass a state referendum that would increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 and index it for inflation shows the shortcomings of this kind of approach. While Raise the Wage — a coalition of unions and other organizations — intends to focus on grassroots organizing, its kick-off press conference featured the biggest names in New Jersey Democratic politics, which meant that the coverage was going to focus on, well, politics.

Here is the lede:

Two Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, the party’s nominee for governor and top union leaders this morning kicked off a campaign to raise state’s minimum wage.

What follows, interspersed with some quotations about the need for a higher wage, is essentially more of the same — which unfortunately implies that the campaign is less about the wage-hike than about Democratic politics.

The issues, as some of the speakers apparently made clear, is about ensuring that low-wage workers earn enough to survive and the need to decouple the minimum wage from politics by tying it to the Consumer Price Index. The wage, which was last increased to $7.15 in 2005, though a federal increase pushed it to $7.25 in 2009. The wage, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, is now worth $6.17 an hour in constant 2005 dollars. Gordon MacInnes told me back in January that, had the 2005 wage kept pace with inflation “it would be $8.52 an hour.”

That, Booker said at today’s press conference (NJ.com) is the crux of the issue.

“You look all around this region and poor working people are having to pay more for rent, more for food, more for gas, more for transportation, more for tuition,” Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the frontrunner for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination, told about 65 people gathered at the New Hope Baptist Church. “All of these costs going up but minimum wage has stayed the same.”

Critics of the hike say will cost jobs, that it is too much of a wage hike too soon and that the escalator clause is bad policy. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a Democratic bill that would have increased the wage to $8.50 with cost-of-living adjustment for just that reason.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver disputed those claims:

“You will hear all kinds of arguments about why New Jersey can’t elevate the minimum wage. It’s a job killer. Businesses will leave the state. A host of different arguments,” Oliver said. “But we continue in New Jersey to provide tax breaks for millionaires, corporate tax incentives for businesses. But we will turn our backs on the lowest wage earners in the state?”

Polling shows the wage hike to be popular, though it has not received a lot of attention. It has been — and likely will continue to be — overshadowed by the governor’s race and now the U.S. Senate rate. The Raise the Wage campaign should bring it more exposure and, hopefully, the debate over the wage increase will get its own full hearing by the voters between now and November.

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