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posted: 1/15/2013 5:00 AM

Low-wage workers face economic anxiety

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For many parents in the Chicago area, the holidays came and went with a certain amount of dread. While the media promote spending, parents worry about paying basic bills. For so many in our economy who are unemployed, underemployed or underpaid, it is an anxious time of year. There are books and supplies to buy for the next semester, child care arrangements to be made and college tuition bills to pay. Then there are all those gifts and expectations. Where will the funds come from?

And for many students, the holidays include balancing school and a part-time low-wage job. That's harder to do today than it was 30 years ago. At $8.25 an hour, the minimum wage in Chicago has not kept up with inflation. If it had, it would be $10.55.

The minimum wage I earned in high school 30 years ago, serving greasy popcorn and flat sodas at the local movie theater, seemed pitifully low at the time. But today the wage is worth even less. Meanwhile, in those same last 30 years, CEO pay nationally has increased more than 725 percent.

The $8.25 an hour wage translates to about $17,000 a year for a full-time position, usually without insurance or benefits.

That's simply not enough, especially when you consider that increasingly these jobs are the only source of income for these workers and their households. In fact, 35 million Americans -- 26 percent of our workforce -- now earn less than $10.55 an hour.

Despite the stereotype of the high school kid flipping burgers, 76 percent of the workers in minimum-wage jobs are adults age 20 or over. In other words, they are not just working for school dance tickets, presents or tuition. The vast majority of people working for the minimum wage are adults, many supporting children of their own.

The good news is that low-wage workers have recently joined together in a campaign for fair pay and the right to form a union without interference. The workers have formed the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago, and they worked to raise awareness during the holiday season with events along the Magnificent Mile and in The Loop. Their message is simple: Huge corporations like McDonald's and Macy's should pay their employees enough that they don't have to rely on public assistance to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

As community members and people of faith, this struggle couldn't be more important. Not only would giving these workers a raise make a huge difference for their families, it would also increase spending at local businesses and address some of the city's most persistent challenges -- including crime and education, two problems research has tied directly to poverty.

At the suburban church I pastor, back when the school year began, we invited all our students to bring their backpacks to church to be blessed. We prayed over those backpacks at the altar and for their little owners. We prayed for wisdom gleaned from the books within, for learning that might fill blank notebooks, for fresh new gym clothes and team uniforms that will never again smell so good, and for the life lessons to be learned on the playground. When I prayed over those backpacks, I was tempted to ask the parents to bring forward their own wallets and checkbooks so I could pray over those as well.

For now, I will pray for a day when workers in the Chicago area are paid enough that no one who puts in an honest day's work will have to rely on public assistance to make ends meet.

I will pray for a day when the gap between the rich and the poor in this country has shrunk so much that a child born in poverty to an unmarried mother will have enough to live, to grow and to one day save the world. After all, it has happened before.

• Lillian Daniel is a member of the Advisory Board of Arise Chicago, a board member of Interfaith Worker Justice, Senior Minister of First Congregational Church, UCC, in Glen Ellyn, and author of the upcoming book "When 'Spiritual But Not Religious' is Not Enough."

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