Who Really Has Access to a Living Wage?

The federal government shutdown reminded people of just how fragile a supposedly steady job can be. Media reports told countless stories of government employees forced to visit food banks and seek leniency from landlords as they waited for their paychecks to start again.

But many government workers knew their pay would eventually resume—whereas, for millions of other people living in the U.S., and in communities like mine in the Roxbury area of Boston, income insecurity is a daily struggle that lasts for years, and sometimes an entire lifetime.

Over 51 million households in the U.S. cannot meet basic needs, including 34 million working households in the U.S. that live above the official poverty line but do not earn enough to cover the costs of ordinary expenses. For the individuals and families that are brutalized by racist policing and criminalization, such economic insecurity is the direct consequence of race-based disparities in the justice system and nearly six decades of active disinvestment in their communities.

Over 70 million people with criminal records in the U.S. face down daily the 46,000 laws and statutes that impede their access to housing, employment and basic needs. According to the Prison Policy Institute, the overall unemployment rate for people who have been incarcerated is more than 27 percent—five times the national average. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly 60 percent of people coming home from prison remain unemployed a year after incarceration.

For communities of color, the impacts of a criminal record are exponentially worse. Black men and women with records experience higher rates of unemployment than their white counterparts—35.2 percent and 43.6 percent, respectively—and even when they can secure jobs, they are often positions that don’t provide them with economic security. One-third of Black women with records are locked into temporary or occasional employment, typically with major companies that utilize “just-in-time” scheduling to avoid paying benefits and are built on anti-worker labor practices.

Too many people with criminal records find themselves relinquishing their rights to a living wage and proper benefits just to feed their families. The wages of formerly incarcerated people are 11 percent lower than people without records. Nearly 50 percent of people with records who do find work earn less than $10,090 a year. These pay disparities permeate the workforce regardless of level of education.

Congress failed these communities when it passed the First Step Act, which uses racist risk assessment tools to determine eligibility for job training and educations programs. The legislation created categories, and a hierarchy, of offenses that exclude predominantly Black and brown people in prison from accessing the resources they need.

We can do better. Lawmakers must recognize the structural barriers which many of our families are forced to endure, no matter how hard they work, and then champion solutions put forth by directly impacted advocates that begin to eradicate structural barriers. They can start by passing the ELEVATE Act.

Introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representative Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), the ELEVATE Act would create subsidies for public and private employment to address systemic unemployment and support workers with resources like job training and child care that enable them to move closer to earning a living wage.

The strong, resilient women I work with—across generations, inside and outside of prisons—deserve for their voices and ideas to be elevated as they work to transform their communities. Our vision for economic justice is grounded in community-based solutions that include investment in entrepreneurial and cooperative economies and job creation.

We can’t make that happen without investment in a critical mix of strategies by elected officials. The ELEVATE Act would be a strong first step in the right direction.


Andrea James is the founder and executive director of the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.