Before granting tax breaks to businesses, the city needs to make sure workers will be paid a living wage.

by WENDI C. THOMAS

Wendi_mug_cropDr. Martin Luther King Jr., who would have turned 86 last Thursday, once said: "Equality means dignity. And dignity demands a job and a paycheck that lasts through the week."

Keep this in mind whenever you see nearly giddy news coverage about new jobs coming to the Memphis area — whether it's 900 new Williams-Sonoma warehouse jobs just across the state line in Mississippi, 400 jobs added with Target's new fulfillment center, or the 282 jobs expected after Graceland gets a new hotel.

"But dignity is also corroded by poverty, no matter how poetically we invest the humble with simple graces and charm. No worker can maintain his morale or sustain his spirit if in the market place his capacities are declared to be worthless to society," King also said.

 

A living wage in Memphis is around $13 an hour. Average wages at Conduit Global, a call center that opened last year a mile from the nearest bus stop, are around $12. The base wage for Electrolux line workers is less than that. 

Today's hourly wages have the same purchasing power they did when Jimmy Carter was president. (That's 1979, for those too young to remember.)

Thousands, if not millions of black people, "are poverty stricken — not because they are not working, but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the main stream of the economic life of our nation," King said. 

In December, the unemployment rate fell to 5.6 percent, the lowest in six years. That sounds like good news, until you view it through the lens of history and race.

"According to the official statistics," King wrote in February 1968, "Negro unemployment is twice that of whites." Fifty years later, the gap remains. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, black unemployment in December was 10.4 percent. 

To lure companies to town, city and county government regularly give out multimillion-dollar incentive packages. In the case of Graceland, the tax breaks amount to a staggering $141 million, or more than $440,000 in incentives per job created.

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