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We all can benefit from higher wages in our region

We’ve all seen it happen many times in Southern Oregon. Someone starts a business. They have a good plan and a good product or service. But the business doesn’t survive because there just aren’t enough customers with money to spare.

It seems like at least once a year there is a conference or forum in Jackson County about low wage levels. One usual “solution” — attracting or developing high tech start-ups — doesn’t go very far because those companies typically provide so few jobs. Another standard answer — “more education and training” — has some truth to it but ignores how many people have good job skills but are still paid low wages or can’t find work that uses those skills.

We’re in a vicious cycle — low wage levels that don’t create enough household buying power to support more small businesses that could provide more jobs.

At some point, we need some way to reverse that cycle — to raise wages that would in turn create more customers for more businesses that could pay better wages, and so on.

With this as background, along come our Jackson County commissioners, Doug Breidenthal, Rick Dyer and Colleen Roberts, and County Administrator Danny Jordan.

As the Mail Tribune reports, the commissioners approved a letter drafted by Jordan’s office to send to Gov. Kate Brown, unsuccessfully urging her not to sign a bill passed by the 2016 legislature raising the minimum wage in Oregon.

For context, beginning this January, Breidenthal is now making $99,674 — a raise of $6,368 or nearly 7 percent over a year ago, according to another Mail Tribune report.

Dyer is making 94,952 — a raise of $6,094, which is also nearly 7 percent higher than a year ago. Roberts makes $68,432 for this part-time job — she also operates a bakery that employs minimum wage workers. County taxpayers pay Jordan more than $200,000 per year and, as the Mail Tribune has documented, Jordan received a below-market-rate loan from the county for $654,000 on top of a $1,000-per-month housing allowance.

In short, these are not the people we should look to for expertise or moral authority on a subject like the newly enacted minimum wage law.

Instead, we should listen to the thousands of Southern Oregonians whom Oregon Action staff and volunteers talk to every year who are struggling to find affordable housing, health care, transportation and education.

Underlying all these challenges for local households is low wages. A living wage here for a family of four with both adults working is $14.96 for each, yet many residents are being paid far less.

The new state law that our well-heeled county officials object to will raise the minimum wage in Jackson County to $9.75 per hour on July 1. There will then be gradual increases each July until by 2022 it will reach $13.50.

These increases are the result of grassroots organizing by low-wage workers, including rallies, visits to Salem and circulation of petitions to put raises of up to $15 an hour on the upcoming November ballot.

The Fight for $15 and the Fair Shot coalition won the courageous support of some Democrats in the Legislature, while not one Republican stood with working people.

Unfortunately, corporate lobbyists were able to not only water down the size and pace of increases but also to win a sub-minimum wage provision so that at the eventual $13.50 rate, workers in Jackson County will be making $1.25 an hour less for the same work for the same company as their counterparts in the Portland area.

While the gradual minimum wage increases represent some progress, Southern Oregonians deserve better. The impact of higher wages cannot be measured just in terms of what employers will pay out but also what their potential customers will have to spend. Our communities need the strong economic stimulus that major minimum-wage increases would bring. Our households need to be able to pay for necessities and build a better life. Taxpayers need big corporations to meet their responsibilities to employees instead of sending them to food stamps and Medicaid while more wealth disappears out of state.

Ballot measures on the minimum wage are off the table for this year, but the needs of our region remain. Despite our current county commissioners, the rest of us must continue to come together to support solutions that get rural communities out of the low-wage, dead-end cycle.

Michelle Glass is regional organizer for Oregon Action, a grassroots organization focused on the challenges faced by working people.