Map: Where you can survive on WA's minimum wage
Many Republicans have characterized Initiative 1433, which would raise the statewide minimum wage by $4 over the next four years, as a decree from the ivory towers of Seattle. The cost of living in Puget Sound shouldn’t dictate the state’s overall wages, they say, and the current wage is sufficient in many parts of Washington.
“In many communities the cost of living is rising faster than inflation,” Bill Bryant, Republican candidate for governor, told Crosscut. “In those communities we need to adjust it up. If we were to do that across the board, I think we would hurt some of the people that we are trying to help.”
But can people in Washington really make it on minimum wage? According to an analysis of cost-of-living data compiled by a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the answer is almost always no. Use the interactive map below to see how the minimum wage stacks up to the cost of living throughout Washington, both now and if I-1433 passes.
For the 5.7 million people living in the urban areas in the western part of our state, from Vancouver to Bellingham, the current minimum wage is not adequate to support a single person with no children.
Further, if you have any children or dependents, the current minimum wage is woefully inadequate across the entire state. There is no county or metropolitan area in Washington where a single person — or even two wage earners — can support a dependent on the current minimum wage.
For single people with no children, Bryant’s claims are fairly accurate, according to the data used in this analysis. For the over 1 million people living without children in most of Eastern Washington’s metropolitan areas, the current minimum wage constitutes a living wage. If you live in Wenatchee, Longview, Spokane Valley, Walla Walla and Yakima, $9.47 could support you.
But in even the cheapest place to live in our state, Adams County, the current minimum wage is less than half what it takes to support a single parent with a dependent. A single parent there needs $21.06 an hour to support a living wage, according to the data.
For single people with no dependents, I-1433 would bring every county and metropolitan area in the state above the living wage. That includes the six metropolitan areas, where an estimated 5.7 million live, that currently have a minimum wage below the calculator’s estimated living wage.
The initiative would also provide a living wage to Washington families with two wage earners and one child, with the exception of the Tacoma and Bellevue metropolitan areas. But single parent families would not be lifted into a living wage by the initiative.
Nick Hanauer, the billionaire Seattleite who has given over $1 million to the initiative campaign, said raising the minimum wage to $13.50 is appropriate, even in the parts of the state with lower costs of living.
“I don’t know where in the state you can earn that money and think you are rolling in dough,” Hanauer said. “Of course this is not a one-size-fits-all proposal, because we have another size for the expensive region in our state, which is the Seattle area, which is already at $15.”
Jack Sorensen, communications director for the initiative campaign, said the $13.50 figure was created to make sure workers could pay their expenses with some money left over.
“It’s about setting a minimum wage, the bare minimum that working families should be earning to support themselves and then have money left over to contribute to our economy,” Sorensen said. “When more than 700,000 minimum wage workers have more money in their pockets they don’t invest it in the stock market, they finally spend it on things they haven’t been able to buy.”
Bryant said he is not opposed to raising the minimum wage in areas like Seattle and the Puget Sound region, but is worried this could cost some workers hours or even their jobs.
“There are a lot of parts of our state that are not enjoying the prosperity that exists in the urban core,” said Bryant. “If you take this minimum wage increase that is based on the cost of living in King County and impose it on small businesses in Spokane, that’s not going to help them.”
Hanauer, who is a venture capitalist and was a major funder of the campaign to raise Seattle’s minimum wage, spoke strongly against Bryant’s claims.
“The trickle-down economics people like Bill Bryant have been saying for generations, that higher wages will kill jobs and be bad for workers, is a lie. It sounds like legitimate economics [but] all it really is, is a negotiating strategy or an intimidation tactic,” Hanauer said.
The data used in this analysis comes from Amy Glasmeier, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who started compiling cost of living data in 2004. The data received its latest update in August, and has been used by the City of Dallas to set a living wage for its employees.
To create accurate measures of the minimum expenses to live in a county, Glasmeier uses geographic-specific expenditure data in seven categories: food, child care, health, housing, transportation, other necessities and taxes. She is then able to estimate a living wage in every county and census-recognized metropolitan area. This does not include any possible government assistance for housing or income.
Initiative 1433 would increase the state’s minimum wage from $9.47 to $13.50 by 2020, including an immediate bump to $11 in January 2017. The minimum wage would then continue to be adjusted with the rate of inflation, as the current minimum wage already does.
The initiative would also mandate paid sick leave, requiring employers to give their workers at least one hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. Employees could use their sick leave after 90 days with an employer, and unused sick leave would roll over to the following year.
Over 730,000 workers would be affected by raising the minimum wage to $13.50 an hour, according to the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a liberal think tank. The same center estimates that over half of workers making less than that are over 30.
It looks increasingly likely that those workers will see a raise come January. A KOMO News/Strategies 360 poll released October 7 showed 62 percent of voters support Initiative 1433, and an Elway poll released October 24 showed 58 percent support.
Lester Black is a writer based in Seattle. He has written for daily newspapers in Massachusetts, Tennessee and New Mexico and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics and BeerAdvocate. Find him on Twitter @leddder.
Interactive map by Joseph Liu