Why Portland Teachers Support a $15 Minimum Wage

Teachers on the march for fair wages and working conditions. Photo by Portland Association of Teachers
Teachers on the march for fair wages and working conditions. Photo by Portland Association of Teachers

Poverty wages prevent children from getting the most out of their education. Here’s why the Portland Association of Teachers supports a $15 minimum wage for Oregon.

By Gwendolyn Sullivan

Every day teachers across our state see the devastating effect poverty has on our students. When kids come to school hungry, or they are dealing with housing that has them bouncing from place to place, they can’t focus and struggle with learning. Making connections with their classmates and teachers is much more difficult.

Poor students also suffer the cumulative effect of stress, as their families are routinely forced to make impossible choices like buying groceries or keeping the lights on.

And poverty robs students of one of the most critical pieces of a successful education—family involvement. Helping your kids with their homework—much less attending football games or school plays—is nearly impossible when you’re forced to hold down two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Today, close to one in four children in Oregon lives in poverty. This is a crisis, not just for our students but for our entire state, and it should have legislators in Salem up in arms.

The same is true for the skyrocketing inequality we’ve witnessed over the past generation.

We live in the richest country in history. But today income and wealth are concentrated in the hands of far too few, while too many of the rest of us have been left behind.

A key factor explaining both runaway inequality and the epidemic of childhood poverty is the steady erosion of the minimum wage.

Forty-five years ago the minimum wage was worth more in today’s dollars than our current state minimum of $9.25. In fact, if the federal minimum wage had kept pace with productivity over this same period, it would be more than $20 an hour.

So it’s no surprise that after two generations of stagnation workers across the country are taking matters into their own hands, organizing and even striking for $15. What seemed like pie in the sky three years ago is now the law of the land in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and is under consideration in a dozen other cities and states.

According to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, almost 600,000 working Oregonians would directly benefit from a $15 minimum wage, and 350,000 children in Oregon have at least one parent who would get a raise if we implement $15 statewide.

This is why Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) has joined with parents, and over 100 community and union allies here in Oregon to push for a statewide minimum wage of $15. The state legislature did not pass HB 2009, which would have implemented a $15 minimum wage over the course of three years. But even though the Democratic majority in Salem didn’t do it, the people still can thanks to a ballot measure filed by Oregonians for 15.

As teachers, we’re standing up for the schools Portland’s students deserve. But what kind of community—what kind of economy—do their parents deserve? We want all our students to show up ready to learn, equipped to excel in the classroom. But many can’t as long as their parents are stuck juggling a string of minimum-wage jobs because the rent won’t wait.

No one who works full-time should live in poverty. No child should ever have to live in poverty. Oregon is ready for a $15 minimum wage.

Gwendolyn Sullivan is the president of the Portland Association of Teachers.

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