What would help low-income Latinos get ahead? Raising minimum wage & making college more affordable

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Each year the Community Service Society surveys New York City’s low-income residents about their views and on what programs and policies would help them get ahead economically. As the 2016 legislative session begins, and lawmakers return to Albany to do the people’s business, the latest findings from the annual Unheard Third poll indicate that many New Yorkers are still waiting for our government leaders to address problems that are making it harder for them to move up the economic ladder.

Among the poor, 8 out of 10 feel they are not getting ahead, including a quarter who see themselves losing ground. Nearly four out of ten low-income New Yorkers reported experiencing three or more hardships, such as skipping meals and falling behind in the rent, and one-quarter of low-income residents reported experiencing five or more.  These hardships are in many cases being experienced by working New Yorkers. 

When asked about strategies that could aid struggling New Yorkers get ahead, New Yorkers of all incomes voiced strong support for an upward mobility agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable, passing statewide paid family leave, making mass transit more affordable, and reining in the practice of unpredictable scheduling of work hours.

By a wide margin, New Yorkers said raising the minimum wage and making college more affordable would have the greatest impact on improving economic conditions for low-income residents. Nearly half of low-income New Yorkers surveyed selected raising the minimum wage and 36 percent said making college more affordable. The order was reversed when the question was asked of moderate- and higher-income New Yorkers – 40 percent said making college more affordable and 36 percent named raising the minimum wage.

As anticipated, Gov. Cuomo used his Jan. 13 State of the State/Executive Budget address to call on lawmakers to raise the state minimum wage to $15. Last year the governor used his executive authority to raise the minimum wage for certain categories of workers as well as for state employees. Ensuring that workers are paid a decent wage is crucial to reducing poverty. And the governor’s plan to phase in the increase will give the economy time to grow and adjust to the higher wage.

Increasing the minimum wage would have an immediate impact on the city’s Latino population who tend to be overrepresented in low-wage jobs. Among hourly workers, two-thirds of Latinos currently make less than $15/hour, compared with 58 percent of the city’s hourly workers overall. While Latinos are 38 percent of all hourly paid workers, they represent 43 percent of hourly paid workers earning less than $15/hour. Not surprisingly, the survey found that 82 percent of Latinos supported raising the minimum wage to $15/hour, with 69 percent “strongly” in favor (compared to 79 percent and 66 percent “strongly” in favor overall).

Our survey also found that Latinos are more likely than other low-income New Yorkers to lack savings that could provide some cushion against job loss or other life events, such as the birth of a child. Sixty-two percent of low-income Latinos compared to 49 percent of all low-income New Yorkers had less than $500 to fall back on in an emergency. Forty-four percent of poor Latinos said they had no savings at all.

Among low-income Latino households in which someone lost a job during the year, hardships skyrocketed: two-thirds went without health insurance, half could not afford mass transit or to fill a needed prescription, and nearly half fell behind in their rent or often skipped meals. Difficulty affording a MetroCard – a problem for Latinos more than any other group – impacted their economic mobility. Almost four out of ten low-income Latinos cited the cost of a MetroCard as keeping them from looking for or taking a job further from home, compared to 29 percent for low-income New Yorkers overall.

The survey also found that unpredictable work schedules were also more likely to be problem for low-income Latinos than other groups. Half of those surveyed reported less than a week’s notice for their work hours, making it challenging to maintain jobs and manage other responsibilities such as child care.

Despite job growth and low unemployment, we still have too many families in New York living in poverty, or teetering on the brink of it. With public opinion favoring proposals to raise the minimum wage, establish a statewide paid family leave law and make college more affordable, our leaders in Albany should waste no time in moving them forward.

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