Is the minimum wage enough to live in Virginia?
By Keya Vakil
May 1, 2019

This is part two of our series looking at the minimum wage. Check out part one here.

If you’re a full-time minimum wage worker in Virginia earning $7.25 per hour, working 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, you earn $15,080 before taxes.

While that’s technically over the poverty line for an individual ($12,140), it may not be enough for you to pay rent in a state where housing costs are rising, pay your other bills, and provide for a family, if you have one.

Indeed, that $15,080 falls below the poverty line for a family of two ($16,460, or $7.91 per hour), and that discrepancy only gets worse as your family gets bigger.

Could you really live on $15,080 a year if you had a child? Even if you didn’t, it might be difficult. What if your car broke down? What if your rent went up? What if you need to buy clothing for yourself or your child? What if you lived in Northern Virginia, where housing prices are surging?

A living wage in Virginia

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Living Wage Calculator, on average, the living wage in Virginia for one adult would be $14.17, nearly double the state’s minimum wage.

For a single adult with one child, it would be $27.83 per hour, roughly $20 more than the $7.25 minimum wage and the $7.91 poverty wage.

In most cases, these discrepancies grow as families grows larger. And because the model takes location into account, there can be great disparity from county to county.

In Loudon County, for example, the living wage for a single adult is $17.44 per hour, while in Henrico County, it’s $13.23 per hour. It’s worth noting, however, that despite the disparity, both rates are still significantly higher than Virginia’s minimum wage.

The fight

The idea of raising the minimum wage was a fringe issue for Democrats as recently as five years ago, but over the last several years, the labor movement and other organizations like Fight for 15 and the Economic Policy Institute have pushed it to the forefront.

Nearly half of all states have passed minimum wage increases in recent years and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates are proactively addressing the issue.

While the tides seem to have turned, advocates and even some 2020 contenders view the existing minimum wage increases only as a starting point, with a living wage being the end goal. Indeed most of the existing minimum wage raises are incremental and they cap out at $9.25 per hour in some states and $15 per hour in others and remain well below the living wage threshold in most places.

Advocates know they must crawl before they can walk, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop pushing anytime soon, especially in Virginia where the Republican-controlled General Assembly rejected several minimum wage increases in January of this year.

Activists know that the only way the state will see an increase in its minimum wage in the near future is if Democrats win control of the General Assembly in this November’s elections. Armed with that knowledge, they are likely to hammer Republicans on the issue as often as possible, while also continuing their own grassroots efforts.

In Alexandria, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the Virginia Theological Seminary launched an initiative last summer to convince local businesses to pay a living wage for the area, according to MIT’s calculations. The groups acknowledged their efforts would take years to come to fruition, but emphasized the importance of paying workers enough to survive in the expensive Washington, D.C. suburbs.

Whether it’s in Alexandria or Richmond, the fight to raise the minimum wage is going to continue, and there’s a lot on the line. Roughly 70,000 Virginia workers make the minimum wage or less, and the impact of raising the state’s minimum wage would be noticeable.

Perhaps even more importantly, such an increase could pave the way to one day pass a true living wage, which would be life-changing.

A writer in the New York Times recently wrote that “a living wage is an antidepressant. It is a sleep aid. A diet. A stress reliever. It is a contraceptive, preventing teenage pregnancy. It prevents premature death. It shields children from neglect.”

But now? The current minimum wage doesn’t allow for any of that.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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