How Even NPR Gets The Living Wage Wrong

December 9, 2013 | | Talking Points Memo |

If anyone still suspects that National Public Radio has a consistently liberal bias, listen to Robert Siegel's interview with Brigid Flaherty, organizing director for the Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor advocacy group, on Wednesday's All Things Considered.

The topic was the poverty-level wages paid to bank tellers and other employees in the bottom half of the banking industry. Siegel reminded listeners that U.S. taxpayers bailed out the financial industry when many of the nation's largest banks teetered on the brink of collapse. He also pointed out that despite the taxpayer subsidies, Wall Street banks nevertheless paid their top executives huge salaries and bonuses.

Then Siegel asked Flaherty about a new study conducted by economists at the University of California at Berkeley's Labor Center on behalf of a group called the Committee for Better Banks. Flaherty explained that in New York state, one out of three bank tellers are receiving some form of public assistance -- such as food stamps and Medicaid -- because their wages are so low. Siegel asked Flaherty: "How much do, say, bank tellers in New York City make?" Flaherty responded: "So on average, they make around $11 an hour, which yearly comes out to about $14,000 a year."

"That's very tough to live with in New York City," Siegel responded. "You might be able to make ends meet, though, in some other parts of the country on that."

It is at this point that it becomes clear that Robert Siegel is totally out of touch with the realities of living in America. [...]

Siegel could travel to any part of the United States and discover without any digging that no three-person family (working mom and two kids) earning $14,000 a year -- or even $22,000 -- can make ends meet.

In recent weeks we've been hearing a great deal about the burgeoning movement of low-wage workers, particularly those employed by Walmart and by fast-food chains like McDonalds, Wendy's and Taco Bell. Last month Demos issued a report showing just how easily Walmart could raise wages for its employees. Instead of buying its own stock to enrich the Waltons, whose wealth equals that of 42 percent of all Americans, Walmart could pay every employee $14.89, without raising prices, the report says.

Now, thanks to the UC-Berkeley study, we know that most bank tellers constitute part of the growing ranks of the nation's working poor. The person behind that thick glass window helping you deposit your check or take out some cash probably has no savings of her or his own. Unless he or she has spouse making a middle class salary, she probably doesn't have much left in her checking account at the end of the month either. And, Flaherty told Siegel, "We know that the banks have the money to pay their workers a fair wage with benefits."

Flaherty's comment should be nominated for understatement of the year.