Capitol Alert

UC study says ranks of low-wage California workers growing

Farm workers pull weeds in a Central Valley onion field near Stratford, Calif. Farm workers are among the state’s lowest paid employees and Democratic legislators want to attack poverty in working families with an increase in the minimum wage and an earned income tax credit.
Farm workers pull weeds in a Central Valley onion field near Stratford, Calif. Farm workers are among the state’s lowest paid employees and Democratic legislators want to attack poverty in working families with an increase in the minimum wage and an earned income tax credit. NYT

A University of California think tank is adding more fodder to the Capitol’s burgeoning debate over poverty.

A third of California’s employed workers are “low-wage” and their ranks are growing, according to a new study from the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California’s Berkeley campus..

That translates into 4.8 million workers who earn less than $13.63 per hour, the “low-wage” cutoff defined as less than two-thirds of the median wage, which was $20.44 in 2014.

The proportion of low-wage workers appears to be growing, rising from 30 percent to 33 percent between 2000 and 2014, the center’s report said.

It added that between 1979 and 2014, “real wages” – nominal wages adjusted for inflation – have declined for the bottom 60 percent of workers while those in the rest of the workforce have increased, with the largest being a 47 percent gain by those in the top 5 percent.

Not unexpectedly, the UC study found that low-wage workers tend to be younger than the labor force as a whole, less likely to have high school diplomas and college degrees and be Latino (56 percent).

The UC labor center’s data are new grist for the expanding political debate in Sacramento over efforts by Democrats to boost the state’s minimum wage, index it to inflation and enact a state-level “earned income tax credit” for low-wage workers that would supplement the federal EITC.

On Tuesday, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins said a state EITC would be a high priority during the forthcoming state budget negotiations. Eligible taxpayers could claim the refundable credit even if they had no income tax liability and depending on the details, it could reduce state revenues by several hundred million dollars a year.

“People who work every day should not live in poverty,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee said this week as she and Atkins laid out Democrats’ budget priorities.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is carrying a bill (Senate Bill 3) that would raise the state’s minimum wage, now $9 and due to go to $10 an hour next year, to $13 in stages and then increase it automatically thereafter by indexing it to inflation. It has been targeted as a “job killer” by the state Chamber of Commerce.

Even if the Legislature’s majority Democrats enact those measures, however, they must contend with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s been leery about extending programs to aid the poor.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter

@WaltersBee.

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