Fight poverty in Taos: Increase the minimum wage

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A drive through the Walmart, Smith’s or Albertsons parking lot looking at the parked cars tells the story about the three faces of Taos. You see the sleek black Mercedes S500 next to the nicely kept up Camry or Ford pickup and then the oxidized splotched paint car with the bumper held to the frame with duct tape. The five year old Camry in nice shape is typical of most cars in the parking lot. The 20-year-old patched together car is much more frequently found than the Mercedes or newer Lexus.

Another sign of financial stress is the numerous mobile homes interspersed with the adobe homes. The usually well kept mobile home is much more affordable in a housing market where the median price for the typical adobe home is $234,000. Perhaps even more telling of financial stress are the 600 to 700 men, women and children lining up every other Wednesday at El Pueblito Methodist Church in El Prado and the Presbyterian Church in Ranchos to take home a sack of groceries, diapers, school supplies, etc. provided by the Shared Table.

How do the statistics from town and county sources support this outward appearance of widespread poverty?

• The poverty level statistics vary from 25.2 percent to 32.9 percent of the Taos population that fall below the poverty level.

• Children below the poverty level — 42.1 percent.

• Poverty rate among high school graduates not living with family — 31.6 percent.

• Poverty rate among people who did not graduate from high school, not living with family — 63.2 percent.

• Poverty rate among adult females with one child, no husband/partner present — 54.2 percent.

To put these statistics into context, the average weekly wage in the U.S. is $1,082; New Mexico is $865; and Taos County is $618. The Taos County average weekly wage for all families of $618, or $32,136 a year, is barely above the living wage line of $31,000. This is the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet basic needs such as shelter, clothing, food, transportation, health care, etc. In other words, living wage it is not the same as subsistence. 

What should be considered is that a living wage changes according to the number of adults and dependents in a household. For example, according to the living wage calculator for New Mexico, for one adult the living wage is $10.24 an hour, but changes to $20.91 an hour for two adults (one working) with one child. Also, many people who can only find part-time work or are limited to 29 hours at Walmart so benefits do not kick in. They have to cobble together several part-time jobs adding up to 50 to 60 hours a week at $7.50 an hour.

Several New Mexico cities have raised their minimum wage. In Taos County, Taos Ski Valley leads the way at $10.

An argument against a minimum wage hike was businesses proclaiming it would cause price increases, laid off staff, and put undue hardship upon the owners. However, both Seattle ($15) and Santa Fe ($11.09) conducted mandated studies of wage hike effects on businesses and found little or no evidence of price increases or laid off employees. In fact, almost all the increased wage dollars were spent at local businesses on food, clothing, child care, and other necessities, resulting in an improvement of the local economy.

An interesting aside is that out of 4,413 Taos County/town businesses, there are 1,071 employer establishments that have one or more paid employees who could have their pay raised if it did not meet the new minimum wage. In fact, many of these employees are making more, or as much as what the new minimum wage might be, and would not receive a wage increase. Moreover, there are three times as many county/town non-employee establishments, 3,342, run by mom-and-pop or a single person who would not be affected by a minimum wage increase.

It is hard to refute that a minimum wage increase will improve the lives many of the 25 to 33 percent of our citizens who are below the poverty line. We have the power to do a minimum wage increase for our workers. Let us get it done!

Keefe resides in Ranchos de Taos.

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