Tucson was a happening place back in 1981 when I moved here. Earthquakes in California and blizzards in the Midwest had prompted waves of migration to the sun belt. The town was bustling, and everyone was from somewhere else. Opportunity was in the air– as evidenced by all of the things that started in the early 1980s that we still enjoy today– the Tucson Weekly, KXCI, the Tucson Kitchen Musicians, and (until recently) Access Tucson.
Unfortunately, before I moved here, no one warned me about “right to work” states. All I had to go on was my Dad’s warning: “They didn’t like unions” out there.
With a bachelors degree and eight years of experience, I had been making $8/hour (with health insurance, paid sick time, and paid vacation) as a professional photographer working for a swanky graphic and product design agency in Columbus, Ohio. Prior to moving, I mailed resumes hawking my writing, photography, and graphic design skills to Tucson agencies and got a number of job interviews. I received two job offers pretty quickly, but when I told them I expected to make what I had made in Ohio, they literally laughed in my face. “You’re not going to make that here! You’ll be lucky to make $6/hour.” (That guy was right. I was offered $6/hour by both potential employers. I turned them down and opted for $25/hour as a freelancer– early shades of the local gig economy.)
In Columbus, I had been making about 2.5x the $3.35/hour minimum wage and was told to expect 1.8x the minimum wage in Arizona– even though our rent ($250/month) in Tucson was significantly higher for a much smaller and less stylish place than we had in Columbus.
Let’s Do the Math
What’s with the history lesson you ask? This is actually a math lesson…
- The current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour.
- 1.8 x $7.25/hour = $13.05 (compared to $6/hour in 1981)
- 2.5 x $7.25 = $18/hour (compared to $8/hour in 1981)
- Thanks to Arizona voters, our minimum wage is $8.05/hour
- 1.8 x $8.05 = $14.49 (compared to $6/hour in 1981)
- 2.5 x $8.05 = $20/hour (compared to $8/hour in 1981)
- A quick look at Craig’s List shows one-bedroom apartments or casitas run $500-700/month (compared to $250/month in 1981).
So– Tucson was a low-wage town in 1981, and now it’s even worse. Rents have doubled or tripled in 35 years and wages have slid in comparison. An hourly wage comparable to what I was making in Ohio would be $20/hour in Arizona in 2016. A comparable wage to what I was offered in Tucson would be $14.49/hour in 2016. Beyond the professional class, how many Tucsonans do you know who make $15-20/hour? I know many people in their 20s and 30s who are glad to get $10 (no benefits, sick pay, vacation pay or overtime).
The current median wage for women in Tucson is $10.75/hour or 1.3x the minimum wage. (“Median” wage means that half of the women make more that $10.75, and half make less.) To make matters worse, many people are forced to work multiple low-wage jobs or work piecemeal in the gig economy to make ends meet. I have a friend who is a laid-off high school technology teacher with more than 15 years experience; she’s working three part-time jobs, including one at a convenience store. This is a waste of womanpower. Well-educated, experienced workers shouldn’t be scraping by.
For undocumented workers and citizens of color, wages and opportunities are even worse. According to the Census Bureau, Tucson is 41% Hispanic. When you look at all of these numbers together– low wages, high rent, high minority population, and significant male/female wage gap– it is clear that large segments of the Tucson population are making less than a living wage.
If we want our city to be viable and vibrant, we must raise up our citizens. As long as people are unemployed, underemployed, and/or underpaid, our local economy will continue to struggle because– like it or not– we are a consumer society. Business suffers when people don’t have money in their pockets to buy goods and services. When local businesses lose sales, they lay off workers, cut corners, or close their doors. We must stop this downward spiral.
I grew up in the rust belt of Northern Ohio in a union family. My Dad was a third generation electrician, a factory worker, and a member of the United Steelworkers. We lived modestly in a tiny, post-World War II Cape Cod house, but my parents always had health insurance, paid vacations, paid sick time, paid overtime, pensions, and even stock options from one employer. In her old age, my Mom lived comfortably because she not only had Social Security, but she also had three small pensions– two from my Dad’s former employers and one from hers– and that tiny house was paid for.
We were by no means rich, but what my blue-collar family had is far beyond what many people have today because my parents both worked in unionized factories.
If elected to the Arizona Legislature, I will fight for workers, for unions, for paid sick time and family leave, and for a living wage. It’s time to turn our economy around. Providing our citizens with good-paying, full-time jobs is a good start.