Can people live on that hourly rate? Here's how some area residents are scraping by and raising families on what the state calls a 'living wage'

May 06, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

In all the wrangling, negotiating and back-patting, one point seemed overlooked when the 2007 General Assembly mandated that Baltimore-area government contractors pay their employees a "living wage" of $11.30 an hour.

Can someone actually live on that?

Barely, says Sandy Johns Jr., who just moved up from $11 to $12 an hour and is therefore more qualified than most to weigh in. He takes in just shy of $25,000 a year to cover expenses for himself, his wife and two young sons. The family sticks to a rigid budget. But if they weren't staying with his parents for reduced rent until Johns - an apprentice electrician - climbs higher on the salary scale, he doubts they could make it work.

"I'd probably have to look for a second job, something in the evening to make ends meet," said Johns, 30, who already spends two nights a week in apprenticeship classes.

Maryland's living-wage law, which goes into effect this fall, is the first in the nation to apply statewide, though many municipalities, including Baltimore, have them. An earlier attempt to enact a statewide standard was opposed by major business groups and vetoed by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2004.

The wage is two-tiered: $11.30 an hour for most of the Baltimore-Washington corridor and $8.50 for the rest of the state, to assuage concerns about the impact on rural jobs. Legislators settled on $11.30 because it would make many families ineligible for food stamps.

"We need jobs that allow people to access the middle class," said Del. Thomas Hucker of Montgomery County, a Democrat who campaigned for living-wage laws while he was executive director of Progressive Maryland, a "working families" advocacy group.

But sole providers earning the equivalent of the living wage are living so close to the edge that many qualify for other government help: Earned Income Tax Credit. Children's health benefits. Women, Infants and Children food vouchers. Even partially subsidized housing - though the waiting lists in the Baltimore area are so long that being eligible doesn't mean very much. Nearly 10,000 households are queued up for housing vouchers in Baltimore County alone.

Nonprofits that help people in trouble, such as hunger-relief groups and the Fuel Fund of Maryland, are used to seeing residents with hourly wages in the $11-to-$12 range. They're embarrassed to ask for help, said Mary Ellen Vanni, the Fuel Fund's executive director: "They feel like they should be able to pay their bills."

But even people earning more are falling behind as essential costs - rent, utilities, gasoline - have risen sharply. Housing is a key part of the problem. The National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates that a worker in the metro area would need to earn $18 an hour to rent an average two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of his or her income. An efficiency would take $13.35 an hour.

Though the average Baltimore-area job pays $21 an hour, a variety of occupations pay less than the wage needed for an efficiency unit, such as school bus driver and bank teller. People cope by doubling up with relatives, making do with substandard housing, funneling large portions of their paychecks toward rent or taking second - even third - jobs.

The Human Services Programs of Carroll County, a nonprofit community action agency, said a recent client faced eviction and homelessness because her $950-a-month rent was too high for her $12-an-hour wage. She had lost the part-time job that had made up the difference.

"Every day we probably deal with five or six people or households that are facing some kind of similar situation," making around the living wage but unable to afford "very basic needs," said Stephen Mood, executive director of the Carroll group.

Workers earning close to $11.30 say balancing the budget is a constant concern.

"It's not easy," said Kenneth Pierson, 45, with a rueful laugh. He loves his job as a community outreach worker for the city Health Department, but the $12-an-hour wage isn't enough. "I have to carefully plan what I do."

Pierson drives a 12-year-old Lincoln and rents space in his parents' house, cutting his housing costs in half. He has no child care costs because his mother watches his 9-year-old daughter when she's out of school.

Even so, to cover his bills, he delivers pizzas three days a week on top of his full-time job. He figures you need to make at least $15 an hour to afford to live in the area, but $15-an-hour jobs appear few and far between. Most are either under or over.

"It seems like there's a divide," he said. "You get a job, it seems like you're making a lot or you're not making much of anything."

The way the state could help people earn family-supporting wages, he believes, is to pump more money into higher education. Pierson is making plans to study drafting and design at Baltimore City Community College, and that would be yet another bill to worry about if he didn't have scholarship money from a job with AmeriCorps a few years ago.

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