[Steve Bailey published this piece in the Post and Courier on 4 February 2017. He’s kindly given permission to republish it here.]
Mary Moultrie became a hero in this town and beyond for leading a strike against the city’s hospitals for better pay and to end racial discrimination. Today, almost a half-century after that historic strike, Beth Schaffer makes less behind a fast-food counter than Mary Moultrie’s underpaid hospital workers.
Let’s do the math: Schaffer, who has been working fast-food jobs for 16 years and counting, makes $8 an hour at Church’s Chicken in North Charleston. Those Charleston hospital workers were paid $1.30 a hour when they went on strike in 1969 — or $8.50 an hour in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. And then they got a raise all the way to $1.60 a hour, $10.46 in today’s dollars – or almost $2.50 a hour more than Schaffer makes five decades later.
This isn’t progress. But it is the reality of America’s low-wage workers, and nowhere more so than in the world of fast food. Now Donald Trump wants to put Andrew Puzder, who got rich running Hardee’s and ads featuring burger-eating babes in teeny bikinis, in charge of overseeing the nation’s workforce.
Beth Schaffer doesn’t know Andy Puzder, but she does know his restaurants because she has worked at Hardee’s. And McDonald’s. And Papa John’s. And more.
“Hardee’s is the worst,” she says.
Schaffer’s story isn’t pretty, but it is all too typical of the working poor. Her mother abandoned her at the age of one, and she was raised by her grandparents in Goose Creek. She got kicked out of school in the eighth grade and never went back.
Today, she shares a $200-a-week motel room in North Charleston with her boyfriend, who makes $7.25 an hour at a Burger King. She figures she brings home no more than $230 a week, sometimes less, from her job. She gets no sick pay, no vacation, no insurance. Food stamps are the only government benefit she gets. Her feet are her only carriage as Bob Marley would say.
At 33, she works fast food because “it is the only thing I really know.” And she has spent the last four years in the Fight for $15 campaign. She’ll get no help from Trump and his labor secretary in waiting.
Puzder is a vocal critic of substantially raising the minimum wage, an opponent of rules that would make more workers eligible for overtime pay and Obamacare. He’s a big fan of automation: Machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”
Trump wants to push decision-making down to the states. But South Carolina is one of five states that doesn’t even have a minimum wage. Instead, we rely on the federal minimum wage, which hasn’t budged from $7.25 since 2009. You can’t buy a Hardee’s Thickburger combo for that.
About 56,000 workers, or 4.7 percent of the workforce, were paid the minimum wage or less in South Carolina in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That far understates all the workers like Beth Schaffer who exist in low-wage jobs just above the minimum wage.
Finding a way out of poverty is hard everywhere, but few places is it harder than in South Carolina. Influential Stanford economist Raj Chetty, using millions of tax records stretching over decades, has been able to show in remarkably granular detail how geography affects a child’s prospects of achieving the American Dream of having a better life than their parents.
Charleston County, Chetty’s landmark study found, is among the worst counties in the nation in helping poor children up the income ladder. It ranks 242 of 2,478 counties, better than only about 10 percent of counties. Growing up in Charleston County would reduce a poor boy’s income by almost $3,000 a year, the study showed.
Look on the bright side: Columbia and Greenville are even worse. Richland and Greenville counties rank in the bottom 1 percent nationally. Growing up in Richland County costs a poor kid about $4,250 in annual income and $4,310 in Greenville County. The longer they live in these counties, Chetty reported, the more they lose.
Nationally, Chetty’s team found five factors associated with upward mobility: less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime and more two-parent homes. He found that the best way to improve social mobility was not stronger economic growth but more broadly shared growth.
There is no quick fix that will revive the American Dream. But rewarding work by substantially raising the minimum wage for those who have fallen so far behind in the last two generations is without question part of the answer. Thirty states have now set their minimum wage higher than the federal level. The South is increasingly looking like America’s own low-wage Mexico.
Mary Moultrie showed us a better way.