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Andrew D. Martin will become Washington University's 15th chancellor

Andrew D. Martin, who will become the new chancellor at Washington University next June, is interviewed inside the Danforth University Center on campus on Friday, July 13, 2018. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

By Jake Rosenfeld

Quick: how much does a Missouri family need to cover the basics of housing, food, health care and child care? For a family with two working adults caring for two children, just over $15 per hour each. That’s according to Make Work Work, a recent report from the Clark-Fox Policy Institute at Washington University.

The report’s authors base their finding on a widely used “Living Wage Calculator” produced by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Unlike our nation’s official poverty measure, the living wage calculator adjusts for cost-of-living differences between states and considers the important expenses of health insurance and child care that together eat up so much of Missouri families’ annual budgets.

The Clark-Fox Policy Institute issued its report last year. Now is the perfect time for Washington University to translate research to practice and act on the report’s recommendations. Undergraduate and graduate students, contract workers and community members have jointly pressed the administration to endorse the report’s findings. They are asking for a university-wide minimum wage of $15 per hour and child care subsidies for employees with children. In other words, they are asking for what the university-sponsored report called for last year.

Earning a living wage doesn’t mean living extravagantly. It simply captures the amount needed to live independently without facing the stressful trade-offs that come when you can afford either quality child care or decent housing in a safe environment, but not both. Hardworking parents in our state should not face such wrenching decisions when it comes to the well-being of their children. As the report makes clear, thousands do.

For working parents, one particularly expensive necessity is adequate child care, an expense that in Missouri averages nearly $10,000 per year for an infant and nearly $7,000 for a toddler. For a family raising two young kids, that’s $17,000 just for childcare alone — roughly equivalent to the annual earnings of someone working full time at the state’s current minimum wage.

That leaves little left over for rent, food or emergencies, and provides stark proof that Missouri’s current minimum is nowhere near enough for families to make ends meet. While it is scheduled to increase in the coming years, it will still remain far below the living wage threshold outlined in Make Work Work.

That’s why the university should get out ahead of the state and establish itself as the area’s premier high-road employer. The way the university treats its workers sends a broader message about its values to other employers in the community. A wide body of research reveals that organizations mimic the practices of leaders in their field. When a world-class, wealthy institution like Washington University decides to pay its employees a living wage and offer child care assistance, other local institutions will follow, helping workers throughout the broader community enjoy a decent standard of living.

A look at the current landscape of selective colleges and universities reveals that if Washington University were to act on the report’s recommendations, it wouldn’t be alone. A range of peer institutions, including Duke University and the University of Virginia, have already promised to raise base pay for certain classes of employees to $15 per hour.

When announcing its increase, the new president of the University of Virginia declared, “As a university, we should live our values – and part of that means making sure that no one who works at UV should live in poverty.” The same message applies to Washington University, and the new chancellor, Andrew D. Martin, has the same opportunity to align the institution’s values and practices early in his tenure.

The administration has convened a committee to study the issue, and the chancellor-elect has promised a decision sometime this summer. There is no time to waste. Every month that goes by means more unnecessary stress for university employees struggling to make their monthly expenses.

It also means falling behind our peers in attracting tomorrow’s future research leaders, since the wage increase would apply to graduate student workers as well. And there is little left to study since much of the hard work has already been done. Administrators can just talk to their own employees, the authors of Make Work Work, who have shown us a way to ensure Missouri families earn a living wage.

Jake Rosenfeld is an associate professor of sociology at Washington University-St. Louis who researches economic inequality. His publications include a 2014 book, “What Unions No Longer Do,” and he recently testified in the U.S. House of Representatives on behalf of a proposed bill to strengthen private sector labor unions.