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Beyond Morality 

National workforce development month and the importance of living wages.

click to enlarge An image of the Fight for $15 March from Monroe Park to the Robert E. Lee Monument, which took place on Aug. 13, 2016.

Scott Elmquist/File

An image of the Fight for $15 March from Monroe Park to the Robert E. Lee Monument, which took place on Aug. 13, 2016.

There are no more significant gifts to the City of Richmond than the labor and investments of its residents. The United States Senate passed a resolution in August to continue the acknowledgment of September as National Workforce Development Month.

It acknowledges the crucial role workforce development plays in the growth of our economy. The Office of Community Wealth Building is proud of the staff and partners who provide opportunities for our underserved residents to develop their skills and work. The office desires that all residents have access to good-paying careers that stimulate economic growth and make our city a great place to live. We can start by honoring Richmond’s workers with the opportunity to earn a living wage. A living wage is more than an ethical or moral slogan. It’s an economic imperative.

In the spring of 2018, Richmond announced the Richmond Living Wage Certification Program, a joint initiative of the office and Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy. The purposes of the effort are to recognize employers paying a living wage, inspire others to participate and encourage consumers to patronize businesses that pay living wages. The city of Richmond is one of the first agencies to be certified. The Richmond Living Wage Certification Program recognizes that $7.25 an hour is woefully inadequate. A living wage is defined as the minimum wage a worker must earn to pay for basic necessities, including food and housing without assistance from others.

With the help of the interfaith center, three other living wage programs were launched in Harrisonburg, Charlottesville and Alexandria. Richmond currently has 35 for-profit and nonprofit organizations that have committed to paying a living wage to their employees. The office and the center believe that income inequality and poverty are among the moral challenges of our time. However, paying living wages goes beyond morality. They are necessary for the stimulation of our economy for the benefit of Richmond’s businesses and residents.

Wages and the financial health of workers play an enormous role in consumer confidence and our overall economic growth. Consumer spending accounts for 68% of the U.S. economy. Almost two-thirds of consumer spending is for investments and services, such as real estate and health care. One of the main drivers of consumer confidence is wages, which impact the purchase of assets such as houses and sales for small and large businesses. For Richmond to be attractive to industry and economic development, we must educate a globally competitive workforce and honor the hard work of all our workers with living wages.

Richmond’s job growth is estimated to be 37% over the next 10 years, which is 4% higher than the national average. New jobs are great for our city, but too many of our residents are shut out of this new growth. Twenty-four percent of our residents live in poverty, including 40% of our children. More than a quarter of Richmond’s workers make less than $20,000 a year in an environment of increasing housing prices and new development. A minimum wage of $7.25 an hour continues cycles of poverty for hardworking families and dependence on our social service systems. While these are moral challenges we are obligated to address, residents earning low wages provide us an opportunity to develop and expand our future economy.

Imagine if these hardworking people earned a living wage or a minimum of $15 per hour and advanced training. The increase in income and workforce development would lead to better jobs, higher consumer confidence, purchase of homes and assets, and reduce poverty rates that stagnate financial development. Economists and economic-development organizations agree that living wages stimulate financial stability for our region.

Just as importantly, as new families enter the economy at higher income levels, their children experience better educational and developmental opportunities. Thus, living wages help with our current and future workforce at the same time.

As advocates for Richmond, we hope for economies that embrace all of our residents. Inclusion is the cornerstone of our mission, a community that embraces equity and opportunity, no matter your starting point in life. It feels even better when our moral and economic dreams are not mutually exclusive. A living wage provides the opportunity to accomplish both. That is the community of our dreams. It is the Richmond we know is possible.

Enjoy National Workforce Development Month and support living wages for all.

For information on the Living Wage Certification Program, please visit livingwagerichmond.org.

Patrick Graham is the senior policy advisor for the Richmond Office of Community Wealth Building. He has more than 20 years of executive-level experience in the public and social sectors. Graham is also a professor of American history at Strayer University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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