One of the most destructive and troubling trends in our nation is the growth of income inequality. The increasing concentration of wealth at the top, the shrinking of our middle class, and the growing number of people who are working but still poor threatens our future prosperity and, as research of countries around the world shows, undermines our democracy.
Frustration over this state of affairs is strong and palpable among many people I meet in my district. But the problem is so large in scope that many seem to feel unsure how to address it, or even hopeless that it can be solved.
Their frustration is understandable and I see the destructive effects of inequality almost daily.
Recently, for example, I learned of a struggling, working mother in my district. Kobra Oden works as a contracted security officer at a hospital. She is dedicated to her job, and works hard. But after six years in her position, her wages are under $10 an hour and her healthcare benefits are minimal.
Ms. Oden is doing everything right. But, she says she is always behind on her bills and rent. She struggles to provide for her family’s basic everyday needs.
She is not alone. Private security officers are paid 49 percent less than the average for Philadelphia workers. They are twice as likely as the overall city workforce to rely on public assistance for health care. Nearly 40 percent have no health coverage at all.
This is true even though the security firms that employ these officers are among the largest service industry employers in the city, and the largest security companies in the country.
But, there are signs of change. Nearly 3,000 men and women working in private security in Philadelphia are taking a stand for decent wages and benefits. They have chosen to join Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union to demand compensation that allows them to climb out of poverty, support their families, and live in dignity.
By raising the standards for wages and benefits across the industry in our city, security officers and 32BJ will help our communities. Even if their wages go up only enough that the average officer with two children doesn’t qualify for food stamps, it would generate an additional $140 million for security officers and their families over the next 10 years. The economic benefit to the city will be greater as security officers and their families have more money to spend on rent and at local businesses and to contribute through taxes. Using a multiplier employed by the University of Pennsylvania to calculate economic impact, the effect of private security officers getting decent wages and benefits would generate more than $230 million in economy activity over the next decade.
That is an enormous benefit, but consider how much greater it could be if the changes in the private security field serve as a model for other service industries.
Service sector jobs accounted for 41 percent of employment in our city in 2010, up from 27 percent in 1980. Over that same period, the number of manufacturing jobs dropped from 31 percent of the total to 13 percent.
The problem is that many service jobs, like those in security, pay too little for families to reach the middle class. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, nearly half of Philadelphia residents make less than $35,000 a year.
But private security officers are showing us how unionization can bring meaningful change. If workers in other industries in our city follow their lead and unionize, the impact could be huge. A 2007 study by the Economic Roundtable found that greater income from unionization in Los Angeles created $11 billion in economic activity and 64,800 jobs.
We can stop the growth in income inequality. Transforming low-wage service work into jobs with decent wages and benefits is a key.