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My View: Minimum wage is racial justice issue


Lawmakers convened this month for Oregon’s 2016 legislative session, and one of the most heavily anticipated issues they are addressing is Oregon’s minimum wage. It’s no secret that Oregon’s current minimum wage is not enough on which to get by: A full-time minimum wage worker earns less than $20,000 a year, which is simply not enough to afford basic needs, like housing, child care and transportation.

But what a lot of people may not realize is how our stagnated minimum wage has directly impacted Oregon’s historically underrepresented communities. More than half a million Oregonians are working in minimum wage jobs, and these individuals are disproportionately people of color. While people of color make up 42 percent of minimum wage workers, they constitute only 32 percent of the work force. In Oregon, nearly half of our Latino and African-American workers are employed in low-wage industries.

These are workers like Maria and Cristobal, farm workers who became U.S. citizens in hopes of finding a better life for their family. They’ve been working in agriculture for more than 30 years now: Fighting wildfires, planting seeds, picking berries, processing fruits and vegetables, planting and cutting Christmas trees, and preparing the many plants and trees that decorate our communities. You name it, they’ve done it. And what has been their reward? A household income of $18,000 and minimum wage pay their entire working life.

The resulting consequences of this economic policy are obvious. In Oregon, poverty and race go hand-in-hand. In Oregon’s most populous county — Multnomah — while communities of color represent 28 percent of the county’s population, they comprise 44 percent of its population living in poverty. Thirty-six percent of African-Americans in the county live in poverty, as do 35 percent of Native Americans, 35 percent of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and 31 percent of Latinos. As the general economic health of Oregon worsens, poverty and economic inequality disproportionately affect communities of color.

For years, many of our efforts to address racial disparity focused on anti-poverty programs that believed that if you lifted all boats, then those communities represented disproportionately at the bottom of the economic ladder also would be lifted up into the middle class. But too often, our policies have included exemptions, carve-outs, and exclusions that actually further concentrated these families at the bottom of our economic ladder. Oregon’s minimum wage proposal is no different: Any efforts to exempt groups of workers from minimum wage increases will fall disproportionately on people of color.

Oregon families need to be able to afford the basics like housing, child care and transportation. These Oregonians earning minimum wage aren’t folks starting out in their careers, and we aren’t talking about entry-level jobs. They are mothers and fathers. They work harvesting crops in the fields and taking care of the sick and elderly. They keep our airports running, and they are the face of our small businesses. They are Maria and Cristobal and so many others.

It’s time to raise the wage in Oregon — and it’s time to raise the wage for all Oregonians. As lawmakers consider policy proposals in front of them about how best to address our minimum wage crisis, it’s vital that they recognize that a wage increase is an important step in addressing our racial wage gap. We must not leave anyone behind.

Ramon Ramirez is president of the farmworkers union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (pcun.org). Andrea Miller is executive director of Causa Oregon, an immigrant rights organization (causaoregon.org).