Guest Post By: Mary Kelly Persyn, Women United Member & Founder and Principal, Persyn Law & Policy
Everyone knows that the San Francisco Bay Area presents a study in sharp economic contrasts. Tech money concentrates, while a broad sweep of our fellow citizens struggles to make ends meet. As a San Francisco native, I’ve watched the revolution that has remade our Valley into a lab of innovation and a home for tech capital—but I’ve also seen that progress leave too many of my fellow Californians behind.
For six years now, United Way of the Bay Area has given me a way to use my voice to educate and advocate on these issues, and I’m proud to serve on the steering committee of UWBA’s Women United. We’re a group of leaders committed to helping low-income women and their families move out of poverty. As part of the UWBA family, I’ve always wanted to be part of the United Way Capitol Day delegation to lobby for legislation. This year I finally got my chance.
In 70 meetings that stretched through the day on April 12, our delegation of Women United and Emerging Leaders members met with Senators, Assemblymembers, and their staffs to advocate for legislation. Given the number of working poor in California, notifying all workers that they may qualify for the federal and state EITC—even if they aren’t required to file taxes—is remarkably important, and that’s what AB 1847 requires from employers. The state EITC can put a significant sum back in a family’s pocket. While it won’t solve the larger regional problem described above, it’s an easy and virtually cost-free way to encourage families to take advantage of a tax credit if they qualify.
Here’s why we all need to care about this issue. Who are the poor in our region and state? Overwhelmingly, they are the working poor. In 2013, about 354,800 Californians who worked full-time and year-round fell below the federal poverty line, which is $24,300 for a family of 4. Low-wage workers earn less today than a similar worker a generation ago. And using the more rational Self-Sufficiency Standard (PDF) (as adopted by United Way from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development) which measures the real regional cost of housing, food, healthcare, taxes, and childcare, 29% of San Francisco households fell below the line. Half of the heads of these households work full-time, year-round, and 77% of these households have at least one worker.
Despite the Silicon Valley’s tech wealth, its blue-collar workers are no better off (PDF). Today, while average annual pay for direct tech employees is $113,000, blue-collar contract industry workers—the people who keep the lights on, the campuses clean, and the offices running—are paid an average of $19,900 in a region where the median annual rent is $21,444.
Some advocates argue that what’s needed is better training and education so that these workers can transition through low-wage jobs to better-paying work. But the top five jobs projected to produce the largest number of jobs by 2022 are low-wage (under $12/hour). If better-paying jobs aren’t available, our fellow Californians will stay in the jobs that they have—and, experts say, more of them will need public assistance to meet basic needs.
Thanks, United Way, for giving me an opportunity to do what core philanthropic and civic organizations have always done: stand up for the vulnerable and speak to the public and to our legislators in their voices. May they be heard.