Colleges Are Key for Wages and We’re Failing Students

New Orleans    Living in the southern and western states in the United States, sometimes it seems we just can’t catch a break.  Back to back analyses of critical income factors in the papers spell trouble on multiple fronts.  Walk with me on this a while.

More people are leaving a majority of the largest metropolitan areas of the country than coming.  Mainly this is happening in the ones where income levels are the highest, and educational requirements are also steep.  A series of charts in the New York Times established that for working stiffs on the low end of the service and production ladders, income gains were negligible to negative if someone picked up their family and made like the Joad family and moved to someplace like Silicon Valley from Oklahoma or Alabama. On the other hand, a lawyer on the same drive-by stood to make out like a bandit. Without saying it plainly, the outmigration in many cases is tracked to states with lower income prospects and outside of the major metros.  These are families and/or workers going back home where they can get a job and afford the rent and being displaced by the modern demands on the workforce.

In these cases, education at a certain higher-level matters.  Other recent reports are clear that just some higher education doesn’t do the job without a college degree, only moving the needle on projected income by 6 to 8% on lifetime earnings.  Message to many: if you’re going to go to college, you darned well better finish or you’re larding on debt for nothing for you or your family.

About one in three college entrants don’t make it to graduation over six years, but as Times’ reporters state clearly from looking at the data on 368 institutions, “the problem isn’t the students – it’s the schools.”  Get the hanging rope!

And, once you have it, you don’t have to walk too far.  Shamefully, in the top 15 schools that are failing the most in terms of expected graduation rates versus actual graduation rates, institutions in the south and west dominate.  At the bottom of the list is the University of Wyoming, but right next to it is the University of New Orleans hardly five miles away from me in one of the poorest cities in the US, and this is a clue to why.  Lamar in Beaumont, Texas less than four hours away is even worse.  You can see where this is going.  In the bottom fifteen, Arkansas is tragically well represented with the University of Central Arkansas in Conway right there along with Henderson State.  The University of Houston is on the list as well.  Two are in Oklahoma and North Dakota.  Not surprisingly Nevada, Alabama, and Nebraska are also on the list.  Two in Indiana and one in Minnesota make an appearance for the Midwest.

The ones that succeed, actually invest in their students and track them assiduously through the college process to see that more make it.  As the reports note, “When college leaders, in any region, decide they’re no longer willing to accept subpar graduation rates, they can do something about it.”  So, what about the rest of these laggards?  What kind of a crime is it to take young people with hopes and aspirations for the future, and lose them in the maze of inattention, saddle them with debt, and track their lives along with that of their communities, cities, and states down the low road to lives different than their potential?

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Minimum Wage Gaps Growing

New Orleans      There are twenty-one states where workers are still frozen at something equivalent to the federal minimum wage at $7.25.  Those states are disproportionately better “red than fed” in the South and West with a smattering in the Midwest and even the Northeast.

I’m not saying there are any surprises here, but the line-up is a rogues list of woe for workers:  In the South, count Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia for nine of the twenty-two.  In the West, we have Idaho, Oklahoma, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming adding another six.  The Midwest is sadly also very well represented with Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin for their four while the East adds two with Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  The gap between these twenty-one states, along with several others that are hovering right near them like Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and even Illinois, is widening the inequality gap not only between the rich and the rest of us, but even between low-and-moderate income families and their counterparts in other states.

Even with a Democratic governor, it’s not an easy road.  In Louisiana, John Bel Edwards has been turned back by the Republican-dominated legislature three times that he has tried to raise the state minimum wage.  It’s gotten so bad that a state constitutional amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour, if approved by the voters, has even picked up support from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  There were recent efforts to allow cities to set their own rates apart from the state level by vacating a law passed after an ACORN and Local 100 effort won an increase twenty years ago at the ballot box.

These issues were  highlighted in an analysis in the New York Times that talked about the effective rate across the country is now wildly different than the federal standard as other, very populated states, like New York and California, along with major cities like Seattle have raised their wages.

Averaging across all of these federal, state and local minimum wage laws, the effective minimum wage in the United States — the average minimum wage binding each hour of minimum wage work — will be $11.80 an hour in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, this is probably the highest minimum wage in American history.  In 21 states where the minimum wage is still frozen, workers have lost 16% of their buying power.

Furthermore, as their analysis also indicated the main business boogeyman held up as the rationale for keeping wages abysmally low has also continued to erode:

a huge study released in April analyzed 138 different state-level minimum wage increases since 1979. The authors found largely no net negative employment effects, though they did find some in sectors exposed to international trade. And University of Washington economists revised an initial study of Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase that had showed significant negative effects on earnings for some workers. The new study found that the downsides were more muted.

Wrap your mind around this inequity.  If the “effective” national rate is $11.80 per hour now, then workers in these twenty-one states at $7.25 are almost hopelessly underpaid.  A national worker at fulltime hours would be making $24,544 annually, while workers in the left-behind states would make $15,080 fulltime, which is $9464 per year or almost 63% less that the theoretical national worker.  Of course, left-behind state workers actually are farther behind, because the national effective rate was an average after the rest of us pulled the really higher paid hourly workers down closer to our level, making their premium look and spend even more.  Furthermore, since the rate has changed, minimum wage workers are losing purchasing power even as others are gaining.

This kind of inequity at the bottom is as unjust as the gap between all workers now in America and the rich, and should be the easiest part of the inequality gap to eliminate, especially if Congress would act for everyone rather than mainly the rich as well.

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