Honest Numbers Matter

Audrey, a coffee shop owner in Jefferson City, Mo., recently told me about her surprise when she gave a really good employee a raise, and the worker seemed disappointed. Audrey’s surprise turned to dismay when she gave the employee a second raise a few months later. The employee quit.

“She was such a good employee that I did not want to lose her to another business,” Audrey said. “But when I gave her a well-deserved bump in pay, her new, higher income made her ineligible for subsidized child care, so her family was actually poorer than before the raise.”

How did we get into this mess where a worker experiences a nightmare instead of the American dream when a pay raise impoverishes the worker even more? Missouri got there by not updating the income guidelines for child care subsidies in a meaningful way since 1991.

Why? Any legislation that produces a significant fiscal note is seen as dead on arrival in Missouri’s revenue-averse budget climate. That hesitance is partly fueled by the Hancock Amendment revenue cap that Missouri passed in 1980.

My mind flashes back to the late 1990s when I was among the protestors gathered outside a Clayton, Mo., bookstore where a well-known national political figure was signing a book he had authored. We protested to show our disagreement with his political agenda, to slash taxes for the wealthiest U.S. citizens, while gutting safety net programs for the most disadvantaged among us. Several customers leaving the store angrily waved their signed books at the picketers and bellowed, “Get a job!”

Yet most of those in poverty have a job, sometimes more than one. One out of four Missouri families with children experienced food insecurity last year, so clearly something is not working. Two adults with two children living in St. Louis currently must combine to make $18.05 per hour to afford basic human needs, not counting money needed for investments like purchase of a home or a college fund for the children. (See http://livingwage.mit.edu/counties/29510.)

Why are we so heartless in response to those who work but cannot afford basic human needs? When our neighbors cannot afford necessities despite working, the ripple effects lower the quality of living for all of us.

It is time to start an Honest Numbers campaign:

  • Let’s tell the truth about what it costs to live instead of pretending that workers can survive on minimum wage and near-minimum wage jobs.
  • Let’s tell the truth about Missouri’s outdated, unfair and inadequate tax system in which households making less than $17,000 per year pay almost double what the wealthiest one percent in Missouri pay in taxes, when expressed as a percentage of their incomes.
  • Let’s tell the truth in our income guidelines for safety net programs like subsidized child care, housing, utility assistance and SNAP (food stamps). No worker should be forced to quit a job to survive.

Jeanette Mott Oxford is executive director of Empower Missouri, www.empowermissouri.org. Empower Missouri, formerly Missouri Association for Social Welfare, is dedicated to ensuring social justice for all Missourians. Founded in 1901, the non-partisan organization educates and empowers Missourians on issues including hunger, housing, education, health and economic opportunity.


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