In Pursuit of a Living Wage

When working hard isn't enough

by Jack Brook

published April 7, 2017

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell knows what it’s like to struggle to provide for herself and her family on a minimum wage salary. A Rhode Island State Representative for Providence County, Ranglin-Vassell (D-5) also understands how difficult upward mobility can be for people whose earnings do not allow them to fully accommodate a basic standard of living. 

“I was the mom who had to choose between coats and milk, cereal versus paying rent,” she told a group of Rhode Islanders who convened on March 23 at Jerry’s Salon in downtown Providence, to discuss the future of the state’s minimum wage law. She explained that she believed the ability to earn a living wage should be a human right. 

“Many families are going rent-to-rent, paycheck-to-paycheck,” Rep. Ranglin-Vassell said. “I think it is a disgrace that people have to work 80 hours a week and they still live in poverty. That is just unacceptable.” 

Ranglin-Vassell, along with Senator Jeanine Calkin (D-30), recently co-sponsored a bill presented before the Rhode Island general assembly designed to increase the state’s minimum wage from $9.60 to $11 starting in 2018. If approved, an additional dollar would be added yearly until 2022, ultimately yielding a $15 minimum wage across the state. 

According to the 2016 Rhode Island Standard of Need—a biannual study produced by the Economic Progress Institute that documents the cost of living in the state—this change is badly needed. The study reports that a minimum wage of $9.60 does not enable Rhode Islanders working forty hours a week year round to meet their basic needs—adequate food, shelter, transportation, and childcare and healthcare. Currently, over a third of single adults in Rhode Island don't have the means to do so. Individuals relying on the minimum wage fall $6000 short of RISN’s projected $25,751 cost of living in the state. For individual adults to actually provide for themselves solely off their salary, the minimum hourly wage would have to be increased to $12.38. 

For single-parent families, the numbers only worsen. Over three-quarters of single parents with two or more children are unable to support their family’s basic needs. They would have to earn $30 an hour to cover these expenses, even though fewer than a third of jobs in Rhode Island meet this standard, with the average hourly pay across the state around $18. 

Meanwhile, as RISN notes, housing and childcare costs have skyrocketed, taking up over half of a typical family’s budget. A survey from the Rhode Island Department of Labor estimates that childcare for a family with two children costs $1,487 monthly, and affordable housing averages $972. There isn’t much breathing room for other important expenses, whether healthcare or gas money, let alone the cost of school or extracurricular activities. Even relatively stable two-parent families are struggling to live off a minimum wage in Rhode Island—RISN reports that each parent must work over 64 hours to support their family of four, decreasing the amount of quality time parents can spend with their children. 



Although Rhode Island has had several minimum wage increases since 2012, when the minimum wage was $7.40, last year the general assembly rejected Governor Raimondo’s proposed 50 cent increase. Many in the house who voted against a 2016 increase felt that too much too soon could cripple small businesses. “Four years in a row is a lot of increases,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello (D) said at the time. “We need to let the business community absorb it, apply it, and just give them a little bit of a reprieve.”

However, Douglas Hall, Director of Economic Analysis at the Economic Progress Institute of Rhode Island, believes that those who oppose a minimum wage increase are basing their reasons for doing so on stereotypes such as the false assumption that most people working minimum wage jobs are teenagers. Additionally, many believe that increasing the minimum wage would hamper economic growth for small businesses.

“Because of the impact of inflation, any year in which we do not increase the minimum wage, we are effectively giving our lowest paid workers in this state a wage cut,” Hall testified before the RI general assembly in February. 

As Hall pointed out, the fear of putting undue stress on businesses is largely unfounded, since Rhode Island workers are making only one dollar an hour more than they did in 2000, when their wages are adjusted for inflation. 

Supporters of a minimum wage increase recognize that in order to pass the bill it is imperative to debunk the myths surrounding minimum wage. As it turns out, the majority of minimum wage earners are full time workers who are over 25 years of age. Additionally, a substantial number of these wage earners are the sole provider of their family. In other words, most people don’t use the minimum to supplement their income—they rely on it to live. 

“By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of a decent living,” Frank Delano Roosevelt said in 1933, five years before his administration established the first federal minimum wage. The consequence of having a significant portion of the working population unable to live off their wages means that many end up turning to public assistance programs.

“People use these programs as a subsidy for their low wages and that is a problem,” Michael Araujo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, told the Independent. “That’s because anyone who is working full time should not need to use public assistance. It’s not to say that those people are lesser human beings, but that employers have an obligation to society to pay people the actual value for what they are doing.”

Moreover, while programs like Rhode Island Works and Supplemental Security Income may offer forms of cash assistance, these resources are often not enough to fully support families. For example, despite heightened costs of living, Rhode Island Works has not increased its monthly benefit amount of $554 for a family of three for thirty years. 

Other resources, like subsidized childcare, also have the potential to play an important role in alleviating the gap between income and the cost of living. Rhode Island’s Child Care Assistance Program, the RISN report emphasizes, has been tremendously beneficial to low-income parents. However, its availability is limited to those whose incomes are 180 percent above the federal poverty rate, which means that many people who could still benefit from the program fail to qualify. The federal poverty rate—developed in the 1960s—bases its guidelines off what the Economic Progress Institute considers to be obsolete standards, generating a one-size fits all calculation that does not take into account varying costs of living across the state or the increase in housing or childcare costs. The result is that the Rhode Island Standard of Living for both single and two parent families is over two and a half times greater than the federal poverty rate. 

Those bearing the brunt of this burden are mainly people of color and women, an economic fact that bodes ill for Rhode Island’s future. By 2040, EPI estimates that workers of color in Rhode Island will have increased by 80 percent from 2010 and will represent nearly 40 percent of the labor force. Although wages across all racial and ethnic groups have been largely stagnant for the past decade, the average household income for whites is double that of Black and Latinx people. Likewise, many of the employment sectors that most employ Black and Latinx workers are concentrated in areas like healthcare, social assistance, and retail, which all pay well below the average state wage. In addition, a disproportionate amount of women and people of color are required to take on informal and unpaid forms of labor like childcare and elder support.

There are many intersecting structural issues that perpetuate these economic disparities along racial and gendered lines—from poorly funded public education to the prison industrial complex. Yet the Economic Progress Institute and politicians like representative Ranglin-Vassell see a livable wage as a fundamental first step to making progress in social justice issues across the board, from matters of education to incarceration. It might not be able to alter the deeply entrenched in the ways intergenerational wealth impact access to housing mortgages and higher education, but advocates insist that it is a necessary reform to level the playing field. 

Providence City Council President Luis Aponte says that Rhode Island must continue to place value on minimum wage increases and the public support programs that often go hand-in-hand. Helping low-income families and individuals gain upward mobility through wage increases—particularly in sectors heavily employing people of color—will have long term benefits for the state as a whole. 

“Some people look at them as wasteful entitlement programs,” Aponte told the Independent. “But if we are careful in our analysis we can see they are really economic investment strategies that stabilize the workforce and provide incentives that lead to greater economic gains.” 


Nevertheless, the push to increase the minimum wage has faced stiff resistance from the business sector, with lobbyists expressing skepticism as to whether it would actually achieve the intended results of economic growth. 

“We don’t have any information as to what percentage of the federal minimum wage we should stay within,” Elizabeth Suever, a lobbyist for the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, testified to the RI assembly on February 7. “We want to know how much higher we should go and not harm small businesses that have to make payroll.” She noted that a correlation of minimum wage increases with economic growth did not necessarily prove causation and called for additional studies to justify moving forward with an increase. Yet, as Araujo counters, studies like the Economic Progress Institute’s biannual report attest to the positive impact that minimum wage increases have on the larger economy. 

Other lobbyists, like Lenette Boiselle on behalf of the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, argued that employers needed “reliability and consistency” in the wages they were expected to pay and that an increase in wages would mean a ripple effect of increased insurance and workers compensation; essentially, the argument that higher minimum wage hinders businesses. 

However, advocates assert that for those living on minimum wage, any increase in disposable income they receive will be put back into the economy, as a comprehensive 2013 study by the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank supports. Focusing solely on cost savings for businesses, advocates contend, merely results in lost economic potential. 

Yet some Rhode Island legislators have expressed that an increase in minimum wage will take away jobs from teenagers and have introduced a measure designed to counter this perceived threat. Two representatives—Marc Cote (D-24) and Ryan William Pearson (D-19)—proposed a bill this year for a so-called “opportunity wage” that would allow employers to pay 75 percent of the state minimum wage to workers 18 or younger for their first three months or 680 hours on the job. While their stated rationale for the bill is to allow teenagers and younger workers have access to the labor market, minimum wage advocates says that such a proposal would hurt everyone except for business owners and corporations. For low income teenagers in particular, the total income lost over these three months—$1,632 in total—has a negative impact on their ability to supplement their family’s income or pay for higher education. Meanwhile, it would keep older workers out of the market as employers could cycle through teen workers perpetually, ultimately skirting the requirement to provide a sufficient livable wage. 

As state senator Jeanine Calkin noted on her public Facebook page, “The only ‘opportunity’ I see with this bill is the opportunity for business to take advantage of young people in order to make even more profit.” 

But above all, supporters of the minimum wage increase ask that legislators view workers first and foremost as human beings. “Employees aren’t widgets so when we use those high school economic metrics that if x goes up y goes up that’s not exactly how it works,” Araujo testified. “Human beings don’t move like products they move like human beings and they have different costs and different needs; very important that when we consider the minimum wage we consider them as people and not as simple balance sheet items.”


At last week’s panel discussion, a variety of Rhode Island residents reflected on their difficult experiences living and working on minimum wage. 

One panelist, Karen Baldwin, director of care and support staff at Blackstone Valley, a home for developmentally disabled adults, laid out the particulars of her financial situation. She says that she pays $900 a month for rent—utilities excluded—and $100 to fuel her car, a requirement for her job. She only makes $1200 working full time.

“It’s poverty wages,” Baldwin says. “If I don’t work 60-80 hours a week I can’t pay my bills and have money for food.” 

But Baldwin and others expressed hope that even a small increase in minimum wage could make a tangible difference in their lives. The EPI estimates that just a 50 cent increase for the next year alone would augment wages for 78,000 RI workers (nearly 16 percent of the total workforce) by $26.9 million. 

Other legislation in the works that could provide relief for those working minimum wage jobs includes a bill that would grant all Rhode Island workers seven days of paid sick leave. 

“A lot of minimum wage jobs don’t come with good benefits like earned sick days,” Abby Godino, director of Working Families Rhode Island, told the Independent. “If you miss out on work and are not compensated for it, that can be a huge dent in your budget and put you behind on rent.” 

At the panel, Shirley Lombard, who works in a nursing home, reminisced about the older days when a factory job could provide sufficient income. “In the mid ’80s to early ’90s I was working in jewelry factory making $13 an hour in the ’90s, why isn’t it possible to make that today?” she said. 

Still, with the possibility of an increasing minimum wage, Lombard remained cautiously optimistic about the future. 

“It would mean that I don’t have to work two or three jobs and can stick with one and spend time with my children and still support my family.”


JACK BROOK B’19 encourages you to support RI Jobs with Justice or Rhode Island Working Families in any way you can, whether by calling your district’s representative or by donating at or