by Nikki Zeichner
New York City is a meeting place of extremes. It’s a place where people that appear to have nothing in common rub elbows in unexpected ways, and find that their lives share many identical experiences and sentiments. Despite an often apparent feeling of anonymity, there is always an underlying connection that we, as city inhabitants, have to each other. Albeit large, we all know that New York City is a community.
And yet, despite the interconnectedness of the millions living here, we generally don’t talk about the way that some people in the City earn unreal amounts of money and others work full time for unlivable wages. Perhaps not having to talk about wage disparity is one of the freedoms of living in the city. However, it’s also a tremendous problem.
In New York City, because the cost of living is high, a living wage for a single person is a little over $18 per hour (based on a formula by Universal Living Wage, which allows rent to only count for 30% of one’s earnings, and based on the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s account of the rental rate of a studio in NYC as $926). Needless to say, many people in the City are earning less than this amount – and a disproportionate percentage of those earning less than a living wage work in the service industry. Many believe that low wages in the service industry are inevitable and that businesses cannot afford to pay higher wages. But profits are growing where wages have not kept pace. The restaurant industry, for example, experienced 5.6% growth in 2006 and is expected to grow by 7.2% by 2017. Such growth indicates that that higher wages are feasible.
Those of us who have worked in the service industry, those of us who work full time and still struggle to make ends meet – and even those who earn decent wages but are aware of the struggle that so many people experience – personally understand the need for wages to become more livable. But how can we, as a community, prove that higher wages will not only benefit workers, and the community, but could be beneficial for the industry?
A 2005 study performed by Cone, a Boston-based strategic marketing firm, found that 86% of consumers are willing to alter their consumption in order to support businesses that further a social cause. The success of recent conscientious consumption campaigns, such as Fair Trade, also show that people want to support responsible businesses and that consumers can have a tremendous impact on wages by choosing with whom to conduct business. Since New York is a place full of both underpaid workers and conscientious buyers, it’s the perfect place to start.
For this reason, a few young, creative lawyers are teaming up with grassroots advocates, religious leaders, social entrepreneurs, and restaurateurs to launch a project called Wage to Live – a conscientious consumption campaign designed to raise the wages of workers within the service industry beginning with restaurants in NYC. Wage to Live will promote responsible business owners who strive to pay their workers living wages and will prove that living wages are a component of smart and successful business. Because restaurants are selected on a whim, and staffed by some of the lowest paid workers in NYC, we expect this consumption campaign to bring about much needed change in the industry and the entire New York City community.