Workers Need More Than Canned Goods This Holiday Season: They Need a Raise | Commentary

Posted December 10, 2014 at 4:48pm

Like communities across the country, Capitol Hill is pitching in for a time-honored tradition this holiday season: a canned food drive to benefit the local food bank. Stepping up to donate and volunteer are members of Congress, their staff and the Hill’s other major inhabitant — corporate lobbyists. This is also a popular time of year for elected officials to volunteer at food pantries and soup kitchens, and highlight the good work of private food assistance in their districts.

However, as members of Congress and those in the influence industry talk with the people using these services, they may be shocked by who relies on these donations. There is a new face of hunger in America these days.

Rather than the destitute and homeless, food pantries are increasingly serving working families. In fact, a new study by Oxfam America and Feeding America finds that more than half the clients of the Feeding America network live in working households, featuring at least one person who has worked in the past year.

The client is now the single, working mother who stops at a pantry between paychecks to get the food her kids need. Or the fast-food cook who works eight hours a day preparing food, but can’t afford to feed his family.

Roughly 25 million Americans live in households whose incomes are so low they had to turn to a charitable feeding program in the Feeding America network during 2013. About half of these households have at least one full-time worker.

What’s more, these working families are not turning to food banks in emergencies: most report depending on the local food pantry as part of their monthly budget. Most face heartbreaking decisions choosing between paying for food or heating their home, buying medicine for a family member, or making mortgage payments.

Since the recession, economic growth has recovered but food insecurity and poverty remain stubbornly high. Despite decreases in unemployment, many of the jobs created are in low-wage industries. The U.S. now has the largest proportion of low-wage workers among developed nations, and one of the lowest minimum wages. Oxfam found more than 25 million workers, including 9 million parents who care for more than 15 million children, stand to benefit from a federal minimum wage increase to $10.10. In total, 60 million Americans live in families that rely on low-wage jobs to contribute to their family income and where, on average, these low-wage workers are the primary breadwinner.

The minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 since the last time Congress voted for an increase in 2007. Since that time, prices at the grocery store have shot up more than 25 percent. An increase to $10.10 could at least help families keep up with the cost of living; it would cover, on average, an additional 10 weeks of groceries a year for a family of four.

Raising the wage as the cost of living goes up has always had bipartisan support. Past increases under Republican and Democratic controlled Congresses passed with huge majorities. Voters ushering in a wave of Republican elected officials this month also supported minimum wage increases in five states by an average margin of 23 percent, including in deep red states. A number of incoming Republican members of Congress voiced a willingness to address the issue during campaigning, showing hints of momentum.

So what stands in the way of an increase? Some industry lobbyists are pushing back on an increase citing potential job losses. Despite a controversial analysis from the Congressional Budget Office, the majority of economic studies show little or no impact on employment from past minimum wage increases, and even signs of job growth after recent increases.

A number of industry voices do support an increase — including the CEOs of Costco, the Gap, Starbucks and McDonald’s, as well as the majority of small-business owners, citing the benefits of happy, productive employees and increased consumer spending. Even the incoming president of the National Retail Federation, Container Store CEO Kip Tindell, has said he supports finding a solution to increase the wage.

If more voices in both parties and on K Street support a reasonable increase, progress is possible. Canned goods in this season of plenty are fine and welcome, but we need to see beyond the food pantry and make enduring changes that reward hard work and support working families. Increasing the federal minimum wage and tying future increases to the cost of living makes sense, and costs taxpayers nothing at all. And that would be something to be truly thankful for.

Jeffrey Buchanan is the senior domestic policy adviser at Oxfam America.