Help Our Workers
One of the more instructive features of the 2020 national election is that Florida, which President Donald Trump carried by 3 percentage points, also passed by a substantial margin a referendum calling for a $15 an hour minimum wage. That victory underscores the extent to which Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 primary campaigns and initiatives like The Fight for $15 campaign have successfully put a living wage on the national political agenda.
The movement for a living-wage represents an effort to curb the growing inequality in American society and the declining material well-being and purchasing power of American workers. And, few states would benefit more from a living wage than South Carolina. South Carolina is one of five states that does not have a state minimum wage law.
The federal minimum wage is the baseline for employers in the state. A single adult needs to earn $11.76 per hour working full time to meet her basic needs in South Carolina, $4 more than the current minimum wage. According to David Cooper at Economic Policy Institute, the wages of roughly 684,000 South Carolina workers — a third of the state’s workforce — would increase if the state adopted a $15 minimum wage by 2025.
South Carolina ranks in the bottom 10 states in a national ranking of best states to raise a family. It ranked 47th for median non-mortgage debt; 46th for median credit score and foreclosure rate; 44th for child day-care services; 43rd for day-care quality and median family income; and 42nd for life expectancy. A living wage in South Carolina would undoubtedly address many of these issues.
However, it is essential to note that $15 per hour would not constitute a living-wage for many South Carolina families. Needs vary depending on family type and the county or city in which the family lives. On average, a living wage for a single parent and one child is $23.16 per hour. But, the living wage varies from $13.80 per hour in Orangeburg County to $22.94 per hour in Charleston County.
The number of low wage jobs in South Carolina is typical for states across the U.S., where job growth before the pandemic looked strong. But, many of the jobs that came back after the Great Recession offer meager wages, and few provide benefits like health insurance and retirement savings.
Three of South Carolina’s top 10 occupations — food preparation and serving workers, cashiers and servers — have median earnings less than half of a living wage. Wages for these occupations are so low that two adults working full-time would not earn enough to meet two children’s basic needs in most counties in South Carolina.
Political elites in South Carolina, regardless of party, race, gender or sexual orientation, have primarily been hostile or indifferent to workers’ urgent needs. There have been few efforts in the South Carolina General Assembly to address low wages. For example, in 2016, S.C. Sen. Marlon Kimpson introduced a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
Republicans on the committee claimed that increasing the minimum wage would encourage businesses to relocate to other states. They also argued that business owners should set wages because they wanted to “see the free market working without involving the government.” Kimpson correctly pointed out that the General Assembly funneled millions of dollars in incentives to Boeing and Volvo to locate in South Carolina.
The low-wage crisis exists in South Carolina because, as Kimpson asserted to the General Assembly, “We haven’t passed one bill to benefit workers in South Carolina … but we’ve passed a lot of incentives for business.”
While Kimpson’s bill did not pass, it does represent a growing interest to increase the minimum wage. According to a 2015 Winthrop Poll, two-thirds of South Carolinians support an increase in the minimum, as does the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.
As the vote in Florida showed clearly, the need for a real living wage is not a partisan issue. Floridians supported the $15 an hour wage initiative whether they voted Democratic or Republican in the presidential and congressional elections. That makes it clear that this is a proposal whose time has come, and it appeals broadly among working people.
Charles Brave is president of S.C. AFL-CIO. Willie Legette is professor emeritus at S.C. State University and organizer for the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute.