Despite the continued talk of a sour economy and predictions about the future ranging from bad to worse, the City of Charleston has recently seen several long-stalled developments come back to life. As usual, there has been no shortage of debate over the effects Midtown and other developments might have on the communities in which these projects are taking place. But these debates merely rehash long-running feuds between the developers and investors who want a lucrative spot in a tourist town and the residents of nearby neighborhoods who fear gentrification.
What is missing from the debate is a more central issue that could help both sides tremendously in both the short term and the long term: Does the City of Charleston need to consider a living wage ordinance that goes beyond the federal minimum wage guideline?
Now, before you all begin slamming your keyboards with earnest and certainly well-meaning paeans to the virtues of the free market, let us be very clear: governments already have established controls over wages. There is simply no need to debate this point. What is needed is a clear debate over what kind of progress and development the city wants.
If the result of a brand new 235-room hotel in the middle of town is going to be jobs and if some of those jobs are going to go to city residents, why should it be unreasonable for those residents to earn enough money to be able to stay in the neighborhoods that they were likely born in? After all, the developers often make a point of touting the creation of jobs as offsetting any potential damage that a project might do to the poor communities near it. However, creating jobs alone does not create better opportunities for workers. Creating jobs with higher wages brings with it benefits far beyond merely allowing people to survive.
Higher wages could help ease the rising rents that will surely result from increased property values near new developments. In addition, bigger paychecks would also foster more consumer spending by locals, and that would benefit area merchants.
Since many of the new developments are aimed squarely at continuing Charleston's primary function as a tourist destination and not, say, catering to the "creative class," then it only makes sense for the jobs created in these new hotels to be capable of sustaining the persons that work them. Critics of many so-called welfare policies say that they merely let people choose to not work, so why not have wages that create actual incentives for people to work?
Many living wage campaigns, public and private, around the country call for employers to consider starting pay ranges of around $9 an hour, with benefits, or $11 an hour without benefits. Adjusted for inflation, these amounts, while above the current federal minimum, are barely on par with what the minimum wage was in 1968 when it became law. They are merely platitudes mouthed by well-meaning middle-class liberals toward the barista at Starbucks or the bagger at Whole Foods. They are not enough to counteract the nation's backslide into a third-world nation of service-worker serfs.
Even at around $10 an hour for a 40-hour workweek, a person does not earn enough to make it above the poverty level for a family of four. This figure does not take into account benefits, either, so we must assume that the cost of health insurance eats into that take-home pay. Since South Carolina is a state filled with family-friendly conservatives, surely we do not expect both parents in a household to hold down a full-time job, do we?
The message from the City of Charleston to its lifelong residents appears to be, "We are going to cater to multi-million dollar investors and developers." But why shouldn't the City find ways to also cater to creating an actual urban community instead of a tourist museum piece? Or, is the real message that the City of Charleston wants to convey to the nation and the world this one: "Charleston is a great place to visit, but you cannot live here"?