A recent study on wages in Oregon again confirms what has been the case for too long: People of color in Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest consistently lag behind Whites in the wages they earn for full-time work.
The study — "Living Wage Jobs in the Current Economy: 2006 Oregon Job Gap" — carried out by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, found that people of color in Oregon are far less likely than Whites to earn a living wage at their full-time job. A "living wage," according to the report, is based upon the average costs of food, housing, transportation, health care, child care, utilities, taxes and a small amount of savings.
"Even as economic reports herald a strong and growing economy," the report states, "this prosperity continues to be a false promise for many families, for whom living wage work remains out of reach. In the Northwest and around the nation, many people — particularly people of color — are finding that working full time does not provide a sufficient salary to meet their basic needs."
The report defines a "living wage" in Oregon as $11.38 per hour for a single adult (about $23,671 per year), well above the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour. For a single adult raising a child, the figure climbs to $18.48 per hour ($38,441 per year), and to $23.40 per hour ($48,667 per year) for a single adult with two children.
In two-parent households with two children and one income, the report pegs the living wage at $22.34 per hour ($46,474 per year). When both parents work, their combined incomes must total $30.38 per hour ($63,184 per year) to meet the living wage standard.
Regardless of color, Oregonians are struggling to make ends meet — only 63 percent of single adults have a job that pays a living wage, according to the report. And it gets worse for parents: Just 31 percent of single parents raising one child have living wage jobs; with two children, only 17 percent of single parents earn a living wage. In two-parent households, the number is little better: 19 percent earn a living wage.
But for Oregonians of color, the picture is more bleak.
"While 26 percent of non-Hispanic White households have a household income that would be insufficient to support a single adult," the report states, "32 percent of Native Americans, 43 percent of Latinos, and 44 percent of African American households have incomes that fall below a living wage for a single adult."
The upshot of this is that far more households of color are forced to prioritize critical areas of family spending, making trade-offs between adequate health care, nutrition and paying the bills. Of these factors, the report says, health care costs are by far the most volatile, and have been the driving factor behind the increase in living wage requirements in Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest in recent years.
Like the gap in living-wage jobs, more people of color are uninsured than are Whites.
"Overall, 13.2 percent of non-Hispanic Whites were uninsured in 2004," the report says. "In contrast, 21.2 percent of African Americans were uninsured, and 34.3 percent of Latinos were uninsured. Compared to non-Hispanic Whites, African Americans and Latinos are less likely to work in jobs that make health insurance available."
The report offers few conclusions as to why these sorts of jobs — which, not coincidentally, are more likely to offer something approaching a living wage — are less available to people of color.
However, it does state that racial bias remains a factor.
"One persistent factor that affects earnings and job security for people of color is discrimination in both hiring and in career advancement," the report states. The report cites studies of 1980 and 1990 Census data to support this statement, noting that the data "found that race and ethnicity accounted for more of the earnings gaps between Whites and minorities than did differences in education and work experience."
The report concludes with a number of policy suggestions for closing the wage gap between Whites and people of color, mostly having to do with government intervention in the workplace and investment in basic education and skills training programs.
Some of the report's recommendations include:
• Establishing job quality standards for employers and industries that receive public assistance resources;
• Using living wage figures to set wage policies;
• Pursuing strategies aimed at creating high-wage, high-skill jobs; and
• Ensuring workers a strong voice in decisions affecting them.
On the educational front, the report suggests:
• Investing in training;
• Expanding equal education and employment efforts;
• Promoting apprenticeship programs; and
• Organizing communities to help shape company and government decisions regarding living-wage jobs and low-income communities.
To read the report in its entirety, visit www.nwfco.org.