The Lies We Tell & Believe: Minimum Wage in AR

Economic Equity

The Labor We Require

In 1995, when I was a pre-teen, my grandmother died at 57. Almost 20 years later, I grieve all that she has missed in my life, the lives of her children and grandchildren. Would she have smiled at my wedding? Would she have been proud of us? What kind of life would she have lived, if she’d lived?

For the longest time, I didn’t understand the complex layers that contributed to her early death. But in light of this pandemic, I am more clear than I’ve ever been. My grandmother worked herself to death with no material wealth to show for it. She was what was then called a domestic worker - cleaning white people’s houses in Greenwood, Mississippi. She had little formal education but was smart enough to create a family unit with her two sisters to keep my father and his siblings alive and well. She was, in many ways, a miracle worker - turning a loaf of bread and a little meat into feasts to feed the whole neighborhood. She was woefully underpaid yet exponentially resourceful. She represents the promise of an American dream of prosperity. Yet, it was a prosperity she would never get to see.

My grandmother worked herself to death with no material wealth to show for it QUOTE

The Lies We Believe

While my grandmother was not alive during this modern COVID-era, she existed in similar - maybe, even worse conditions. A healthcare apartheid (a forced, lack of access to affordable and quality healthcare) ultimately allowed complications from diabetes to cause her untimely death. In addition to meager wages from the hands of stingy employers who had no value for Black life or labor, her story is a cautionary tale for all of us. Why do we believe in a system of economy that requires people to work themselves to death? Why do we continue to desire living by a system that punishes the hardest working people in our communities?

Recently, a new wave of public discourse about wages and work has taken over media outlets. Due to the evolution of our local economies during the pandemic, there is a commonly held belief that federal stimulus money is encouraging people to collect financial assistance instead of working full-time jobs. However, the ALICE study readily disproves this myth. ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) represents over half of Arkansas’ population who are all working multiple jobs to support their families. This reality is because 7 out of 10 jobs in Arkansas do not pay a livable wage - meaning that many households in Arkansas are reliant on hourly wages from multiple jobs just to survive day to day.

ALICE in AR statistics graphic

ALICE Household Survival Budget, Arkansas, 2018 table of data

The Truth We Need

Recently, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation partnered with Arkansas Community Foundation and the United for ALICE coalition to survey Arkansans about the financial and social impact of Covid-19. The study reveals that many ALICE workers, like my grandmother, are facing multiple stresses that make minimum wage a life or death compromise. For example, of ALICE residents in Arkansas:

  • 68% had issues related to child care and education
  • 65% relied on income from hourly workers, many with fluctuating hours
  • 32% received food from a food pantry or food bank

The truth is that working minimum wage jobs while trying to keep food on the table and take care of children without childcare is an almost impossible situation that requires ALICE individuals to rely on a resourcefulness and community of care many non-ALICE people take for granted. At WRF, it is our hope to begin changing the conversation about hard work and wages in Arkansas so that everyone has access to jobs that pay a livable wage, a quality education, and a chance to thrive and prosper.

To join the conversation about economic equity, sign the pledge to #StandUpforALICE and subscribe to our ALICE newsletter. If you are a nonprofit interested in advocacy work for ALICE, please tell us about the work you are doing. We would love to invite you to our ALICE Advocacy working group as we create a common vision for better outcomes for all Arkansans.