Last night I spoke to City Council regarding the Legislative Priorities for 2017. There were seven of us who did. Topics addressed by the speakers were ethics reform, restoring balance to the Clean Water Commission, Medicaid expansion, capping the interest rate on predatory lending and raising the minimum wage. In fact, ethics reform, Medicaid expansion and minimum wage were all lifted up by Councilman Mike Schilling as priorities that needed to be included or amended in order to give the Missouri Legislature more guidance, but his changes were subsequently voted down by the majority of the other council members. It became very clear that the majority on City Council are not willing to advocate for something if they believe the Missouri Legislature will not take up the cause. But here’s the thing: If we all adopt that attitude, nothing will ever change. Medicaid will never expand to include people who make more than $5,000 and less than $12,000. Minimum wage will stay so low that people cannot support their families on it, even if they are working full-time. Legislators will continue to receive campaign contributions from predatory lending institutions that disguise their true identity. Nothing will change and so people will continue to get sick and not be able to afford healthcare, costs of living will continue to rise as wages remain relatively stagnant, and big money will continue to control and shape the laws of our city, state, and nation. No one wants to talk about these issues because they’ve been labeled as “political.” It’s time we stop letting people silence us with that claim. Don’t allow our legislators or anyone else to call the issues that matter most “political.” Because what they’re doing is playing politics with people’s lives and that is unacceptable.
And so yesterday, fully committed to raising my voice in solidarity with those who are not paid enough to support themselves or their families, I spoke the following words to the Springfield City Council:
Good evening. I am Rev. Emily Bowen-Marler and my address is on file. Over the past couple of years, Springfield has really opened its eyes to the reality of poverty in our city, recognizing that having a hole in one end of the boat affects us all. As a clergy person here in Springfield, I applaud the efforts that the city is taking to tackle the symptoms and, in some cases, the root causes of poverty. I’ve attended a number of meetings and presentations where the data has been laid out and the call to do something about this as a city has been issued. But there is one thing that seems to be missing from the conversation and I notice it is missing from the legislative priorities as well. We know that the poverty rate in Springfield is double the poverty rate in the whole state of Missouri. And we also know that Springfield has a lower unemployment rate than much of the rest of the state, so what gives? The elephant in the room is the low wages that are paid to workers in Springfield. The low wages in this city directly correlate to the level of poverty we experience in our community. Which results in people having their utilities shut off, being evicted from their homes, running to a predatory lending company… I don’t understand how we can claim to take the alleviation of poverty seriously without addressing the low wages that the citizens of Springfield are making. You want to decrease the levels of poverty in Springfield? Raise wages! Even when adjusted for our low cost of living, our wages are too low. When people work over 40 hours a week and are still not able to pay for food, housing, transportation and clothing for their families, something is wrong. When parents have to take on 2 or 3 or more jobs in order to make ends meet, something is wrong. When people have to choose between turning on the heat and eating a meal, something is wrong. Too often people are tempted to lay all of the blame on the low-wage earners, to accuse those who live in poverty of being lazy. When we find ourselves tempted to say such a thing, I would challenge us all to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To participate in a poverty simulation, to try living on food stamps for a month. But instead of seeking to understand the plight of those living in poverty, our legislature continues to take punitive measures by further limiting the government benefits one can receive, by reducing SNAP and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) benefits, by failing to take advantage of the money set aside for Missouri to expand Medicaid. I understand that there are many who are against the government extending benefits to those in need. If that’s that case, why not advocate for people to be paid a high enough wage so that they wouldn’t have to draw on government benefits in the first place? Our religious and charitable organizations are doing a great job trying to address the symptoms of poverty, but all the available has not lowered the poverty level in Springfield. This can’t be fixed by Convoy of Hope or by the Council of Churches of the Ozarks. There is a problem with our laws. When employers are allowed to pay people such a low wage that government assistance is required to make ends meet, there is a problem with our laws. When we lift up the cause of business at the expense of people being able to escape poverty, there is a problem with our priorities. We should not stand for that. Springfield is better than that. Businesses cannot survive if the people perish. It’s time to stop ignoring the root of the problem and start paying people a living wage. I sincerely hope you will reconsider adding raising the minimum wage to the legislative priorities for 2017. Lives in our community depend upon it.