The ever-elusive livable wage

On Dec. 3, Atlanta City Council adopted a long-awaited “living wage” ordinance that encourages private companies that do business with the city to pay their employees enough to support a family. The hourly living wage, calculated by the city’s Department of Procurement, is $10.50 ($12 if the company doesn’t provide benefits).

But the ordinance, as passed, is a watered-down version of the original, proposed in 2003. Most significantly, the ordinance doesn’t require businesses to pay employees a livable wage, but merely gives preference to those companies that do.

Councilwoman Carla Smith, one of the ordinance’s authors, points out that most companies contracting with the city already pay at least $10.50 hourly. Still, the new ordinance could persuade all such companies to do so.

“We’re doing the right thing here for the working class,” Smith says. “Let’s be honest, most of us are just one or two paychecks away from being homeless.”

The push to pay a livable wage, however light, may be the only hope for better pay in a state where the Legislature has banned mandatory wage laws. But it’s still a far cry from the type of sweeping change that would cover companies that don’t contract with the city.

And even $10.50 per hour is bare bones when it comes to finding a decent place to live in Atlanta.

In December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released a study that found Atlantans must earn $16.04 an hour to pay rent and utilities for a one-bedroom apartment in DeKalb and Fulton counties. That’s more than three times Georgia’s minimum wage. Someone who makes $10.50 could afford rent of up to $546 monthly — and a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta averages $834. At minimum wage, an employee would have to work 125 hours to afford such rent.

What’s more, Atlanta’s housing costs have increased by 22 percent since 2000, while Georgia’s minimum wage — $5.15 an hour — hasn’t changed since 1997.

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