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IN THE MIDST OF THE CONTINUED BACK-PATTING about Chattanooga’s renaissance, in the middle of the city’s accolades as a paradise for outdoors living, there are a few hard truths that quite a few people are very reluctant to take a closer look at.
They’re going to need to take the blinders off, because the New York Times just put one of them front and center in a story published Mar. 16 by Steven Greenhouse called “Low Wage Workers Are Finding Poverty Harder to Escape.”
In it, he profiles a number of working poor Chattanoogans—all of whom are making less that the $10.10 per hour President Obama wants to make the minimum wage.
Writes Greenhouse, “In Chattanooga, the prevalence of low-wage jobs has contributed to the high poverty rate: 27 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, compared with 15 percent nationwide. Women head about two-thirds of the city’s poor households, and 42 percent of its children are poor, nearly double the rate statewide.”
The Pulse ran a story about our city’s shocking poverty rate a couple of years ago, and as far as I can remember, it didn’t even generate comments on the website. Poverty is not sexy. Poverty is not Chattanooga-Chattanooga-rah-rah-rah. But it exists, and without confronting it, and the reasons for it, it will continue to be a black eye for a city that likes to see itself as reborn.
The NYT article quotes a number of statistics for the whole U.S., noting the changes in the poor since 1979. They are much more likely to have some high school or even college education. And they are older—the Great Recession disappeared a huge number of jobs that have not come back, will never come back, and these older workers are now, and likely forever, underemployed.
Quotes Greenhouse: “Chattanooga has a twofold problem: the low level of educational attainment and the traditional jobs that these people move into have largely disappeared,” said Matthew N. Murray, an economist at the University of Tennessee. Greenhouse notes, “Just 23 percent of Tennessee adults have a bachelor’s degree.”
But as his article points out, even a college degree is not a magic wand for some. A neighbor and good friend of mine, a highly intelligent woman with a B.S. in psychology, has been working at Walmart for the last four years, unable to find a better-paying job that would utilize her skills. She is the sole caretaker for her mother, who has multiple medical problems.
The Internet is also ablaze with comments about another Chattanooga woman living in poverty, Katrina Gilbert, profiled in the HBO documentary based on the Shriver Report, “Paycheck to Paycheck.” (See The Pulse’s Screen feature, Mar. 13.)
There are things we can do, and do now. Chattanooga needs a vocational school, and it needs one now—yet that is not one of the proposals on the table in the recently released list of new schools being considered by the school board and country commission. The Tennessee legislature needs to stop making ridiculous claims about Common Core being a “federal takeover of schools” and recognize that if Tennessee kids don’t start achieving more, the state (and Chattanooga) will continue to fall further behind. Instead of screeching about how an increased minimum wage will cause the economy to tank once again, conservatives need to pay attention to studies such as the one highlighted in a Washington Post article of Jan. 14, 2014.
Writes reporter Mike Konczal about a study by University of Massachusetts at Amherst economist Arin Dube, “Let’s first highlight the major results. Dube uses the latest in minimum-wage statistics and finds a negative relationship between the minimum wage and poverty. Specifically, raising the minimum wage 10 percent (say from $7.25 to near $8) would reduce the number of people living in poverty 2.4 percent…
“Using this as an estimate, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as many Democrats are proposing in 2014, would reduce the number of people living in poverty by 4.6 million. It would also boost the incomes of those at the 10th percentile by $1,700. That’s a significant increase in the quality of life for our worst off that doesn’t require the government to tax and spend a single additional dollar.”
How if we think about the idea that “No Chattanoogan Left Behind” should be a city motto? We could do worse. We are doing worse, right now.