Want civic engagement? Pay a living wage

Photo by Waylon Cunningham for The Texas Tribune

The civil rights of many hard-working Texans are being violated every day, and they don’t even know it. It isn’t due to things, like voter ID and gerrymandering, that most talk about. The violations are due to a choice many have to make: Survival or citizenship?

The lack of wage growth for many in the middle and working classes, combined with the rising cost of living nationwide, has made civic participation almost impossible for many Texans.

I am the poster child for how to develop a civically engaged citizen. I have an advanced degree in Ethics & Public Policy, certification in Transformative Leadership, and was raised by parents whose civic engagement began in junior high, when they were asked by the NAACP to integrate a movie theater.

In the March primary I voted for half of the candidates, at best. I make it a practice not to vote for any person or initiative I don’t know anything about, and I didn’t know a thing about half of the candidates on the ballot. What little information I managed to bring into the ballot box with me came from about an hour of research I did the night before. How could someone with my background be so uninformed about local candidates?

In many ways, I’m also the poster child for the economic reality of the average Texas resident. Between my part-time jobs I work between 50 and 55 hours weekly.  This doesn’t leave much time or energy for candidate research. Still, I find whatever time I can because of my passion for civic engagement. Many in this state work as hard, if not harder, than I do, without the advantages I’ve had. Making citizens choose between survival and engagement is absolutely a civil rights violation.

Texans take care of each other, but it’s becoming difficult for the average Texan to look out for anyone besides themselves. The gap between the minimum wage in Texas ($7.25/hour) and the living wage ($11.00/hour) is $4 an hour. A minimum wage worker in Texas needs to work 61 hours a week to meet the cost of living. The statewide gap is $4, but in cities like Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, where the jobs are, that gap widens and the number of weekly hours for minimum wage workers rises.

There are 168 hours in a week. If you take out 56 hours for sleep (eight hours daily) and 61 for work, minimum wage workers have 51 hours (about seven hours a day) to deal with the rest of life. If you’re single, 7 hours a day might be doable, but for people with families, it isn’t enough. This leaves no time for citizenship, and this leads to too many Texans being unable to act as fully functioning citizens.

But there are a couple of things we could do to encourage greater civic engagement.

Idea One: Offer tax credits for civic engagement. Incentivize citizenship by giving people a tax credit equivalent to the financial contribution each hour of civic participation is worth. According to an Independent Sector study, the financial contribution to the state of Texas per hour of volunteering is $25. The credit would be tied to a formula of annual wage and family size. This would be a step forward, but it fails to address the minimum wage vs living wage gap.

Idea Two: Establish a statewide or countywide living wage tied to the cost of living. This would be worthwhile even if it just gives minimum wage workers 2 to 3 more hours a day for civic participation. Business owners might argue that higher pay means either fewer employees or higher prices.  Maybe so, but let the market decide. Ask customers if they’d pay more for your product if it meant better pay for employees.

Texas has a proud history as a former republic, but now it looks more like a company than a free state.  A free state protects the right of citizens to be citizens, in all the ways that ensure its sovereignty. Until Texas addresses the gap between its minimum wage and cost of living as a block to active citizenship, and therefore a civil rights violation, it remains a free state only on paper, not in reality.

Cornell Woolridge

Founder and president, CivicSolve LLC