The Path Forward – A Strong Middle Class Is Essential for Georgia

Originally published by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute

By Jennifer Owens
November 16, 2016

As the dust continues to settle in the wake of last week’s presidential election, a cloud of uncertainty still obscures what the policy and budget consequences will be here at home in the Peach State. Still, two things remain absolutely certain: Georgia families are struggling, and GBPI is resolved in our important work to spotlight the hard facts and evidence-based solutions to make lives better for Georgia families of all political persuasions and backgrounds. Our economy works best for everyone when it is inclusive, equitable and teeming with opportunities from the ground on up.

And we see a clear path forward. We must act to lift the wages of Georgia workers, target tax credits to families working toward the middle class, increase access to affordable health insurance coverage, boost access to good schools and colleges and invest in ways to develop workers to strengthen our families and our economy.

Depressed wages, fueled by Georgia’s stubborn refusal to raise the minimum wage, undervalue the labor of nearly 1 million Georgia workers. The state’s current minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, leaves Georgia in the company of only a handful of other states with minimum wages below the federal minimum hourly wage floor of $7.25. These low-wage workers are increasingly older, work full-time and are more educated than in the past. Many are also the sole breadwinners in their household. In fact, about 92 percent of the workers who stand to benefit from a minimum wage increase are over the age of 20, and two-thirds are at least 25 years old. Hardworking Georgians deserve better pay for honest work.

Another opportunity to improve the lives of working Georgians is through a state earned income tax credit, or a Georgia Work Credit. This policy enjoys bipartisan support and has a 30-year track record  of great success at the federal level. That success inspired states around the country to complement the federal tax credit with a state match. This state match, now offered in 26 states and the District of Columbia, serves as a solid rung on the ladder on the climb to the middle class for countless families, and could do the same here in Georgia for over one million families.

Unaffordable and inaccessible health care coverage options are also placing Georgia families and communities at a huge economic disadvantage. Today, 300,000 of our neighbors and fellow Georgians still remain in the health insurance coverage gap and are unable to see a doctor when they get sick. That number includes at least 32,000 veterans and their families. It’s critically important that we focus on a solution for those families who can’t wait any longer or continue to be pushed aside.

For Georgians who feel left out or left behind, securing a good education for themselves or their children is often top of mind. But too many Georgia children attend local schools that are understaffed and underfunded, largely due to a decade-plus of state budget cuts. Too many young people can’t access college because it’s too expensive, and opportunities for job training are scarce. In fact, about 13,000 students were dropped by the university system from fall 2014 to fall 2015 alone because they could not pay tuition and fees. The way to build Georgia’s middle class is to blaze more pathways for young people from difficult backgrounds to thrive.

And finally, for working families to keep a job and keep improving their circumstances, they need access to quality, affordable child care. And we are simply not doing enough. Georgia assists about 50,000 children per week with care, only a fraction of the 682,000 low-income children under 13 years old who likely qualify. The average annual cost of center-based child care in Georgia can easily swallow nearly 40 percent of a low-income family’s budget. It’s time for Georgia to invest in the potential of its parents and children and make this a priority. No parent should have to choose between a job and a safe place for their children to spend the day.

In times of uncertainty, you can trust in GBPI more than ever to give you the facts, dispel myths, challenge rhetoric and promote evidence-based solutions to help Georgia grow and all our families prosper.

The line between policy and politics is thin. We pride ourselves on walking that line by staying true to the numbers, the data, and the facts. As the political campaigns close up shop and the yard signs come down, it’s time to do the hard work of actually helping families.