Some maids in a Columbia hotel were talking this week about President Obama’s latest State of the Union address. One of them asked whether he discussed raising the minimum wage.
A passerby mentioned a South Carolina senator who in December introduced a bill to raise the wage to $15 per hour. “Do you think it will happen?” the woman asked hopefully. The passerby shrugged and replied, “Do you?” Shaking her head, she said in a resigned manner, “No, this is South Carolina.”
That we live in a state that still fosters such hopelessness is sad. It’s wrong. It illustrates the grip of the plantation mentality. Absorb these numbers:
In poverty. Almost one in five South Carolinians (18.3 percent) lives in poverty. That’s more than 840,000 residents of the Palmetto State who live at or below the poverty level, which is about $2,000 a month for a family of four.
Children in poverty. Almost 27 percent of South Carolina’s children — 286,242 kids — live at or below poverty, which creates a series of challenges that raise barriers to learning and getting ahead. In some of our challenged counties, more than two in five children live in impoverished homes.
Working poor. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of South Carolina’s working families — some 186,000 families — are considered the “working poor” because they live at or below two times the poverty rate. In South Carolina, that’s about $48,500 a year for a family of four. The Palmetto State has the fifth highest rate of the working poor in the country, according to a 2013 report.
Increasing income inequality. Meanwhile, income inequality grows. The top 20 percent of working families took home half of all income, while the bottom 20 percent took home less than 5 percent, according to the Working Poor Families Project. Even more distressing: While average income in South Carolina grew 25.4 percent between 1979 and 2007, income grew 163.5 percent for the state’s top 1 percent, but only 12.8 percent for the bottom 99 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. And from 2009 to 2012, income actually went down 1.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent.
Bottom line: Lots of people who work just don’t have enough money in their pockets to dig themselves out of the poverty hole. One strategy to fix that is for them to earn more.
While South Carolina has never adopted a minimum wage, businesses comply with the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour. In a family of one adult and one child, the adult earning the minimum wage would keep ahead of the poverty level by just $2 per day. But according to income researchers, the same worker would have to earn almost three times the minimum wage — $20.22 per hour in South Carolina — to meet typical expenses, such as food, child care, medical bills, housing, transportation, taxes, and more.
“How do you have any hope or joy in life when you work 40 to 60-plus hours a week and can’t pay the bills?” asked Erin McKee, head of the S.C. AFL-CIO. “What message does that send to young people? How do families have the ability to spend time with kids and raise a family? If we had $15 an hour in South Carolina, we would have fewer people on social services, more people out spending money and a higher tax base to support our education, police and firefighters.”
State Sen. Marlon Kimpson, the Charleston Democrat who pre-filed a bill in December to create an hourly minimum wage that’s phased in incrementally to $15 after five years, said corporations were reaping profits, but not taking a longer view by investing in their workforces.
“When you take care of your employees, productivity increases and people feel like they have a vested interest in the company,” he said.
Kimpson said he understood he and his supporters had a long education process to convince legislators to boost wages, but it’s an idea popular with most South Carolinians.
Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce, said Kimpson’s bill would slow job creation and hurt small, struggling businesses, which employ about half of minimum wage earners. “The best way to lift South Carolinians up is education and workforce development,” he said.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Statehouse Report. He can be reached at:

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