Our City Needs a Raise: Why a $15 Minimum Wage is Good for St. Paul

My name is Mitra Jalali Nelson, and I live in a household where I support my family as the primary income earner – something I have done on and off for the past 10 years. My immediate relatives who depend on me aren’t able to participate in the workforce full time. Chronic health issues have prevented them from doing this, as they have for entire groups of people in our economy – which isn’t built to support or value people with disabilities, or working people in general. The weight of our family’s financial burdens falls on me. 

In the past year alone, I have held multiple jobs at a time to support my family. I have literally made the choice between friendships and bills. I have sacrificed my own mental health to overwork, so we can have health insurance my family depends on. My household has debt we are still paying off ten years later; medical bills from our health needs we owe; rent that we are able to stay on top of, but worry about it unilaterally increasing. I’m also a childless, working, millennial woman of color with a college degree, on top of a significant amount of institutional advantage and system fluency that my immigrant parents never had.

This reality has only highlighted for me – a person with significant privilege and economic advantage even in this economy – what the stakes really are for working people in our community.

I come from a generation that has more debt, fewer wages, higher costs of living, and less opportunity (even with more education), than generations before it. For the very future of our city, I deeply believe that we need policies that will significantly increase wages for our residents – my own family included.

A $15 minimum wage, without any carveouts, is one such policy.

As a woman of color who supports her family, I’ve come to see how this issue is one of the key feminist issues facing our city today. Right now, 40% of our city lives in poverty. According to the Met Council, 98% all income in households in poverty is earned through work; only 2% of their income comes from government assistance. Most importantly, the majority of these workers are women; and within that, a majority of them are women of color whose income supports numerous other residents in their families.

This means that nearly half of our city is still fighting to make ends meet, with at least one full-time job already on their plate; that they are supporting families who depend on them to survive; and that they’re even more likely to experience wage theft, workplace harassment, pay disparities and more, because of how poverty is racialized and gendered in our world.

This year, the City of St. Paul will be considering increasing the minimum wage from $9.65 per hour (for large businesses) to $15 per hour. This potential change requires much consideration, as it would have a big impact on how the city conducts its business and, most importantly, how it affects the residents of St. Paul. I have been eagerly following the work of the Citizens League of Saint Paul to study this issue and the impacts and opportunities it presents for our city. I am also running for City Council because I believe this change has the potential to lift thousands of working families out of poverty, support business development, and ultimately increase wages for all.

About 1 in 4 jobs in Saint Paul pays less than $15 an hour. Raising it to $15 would give this 1/4th of the people working in the city a raise. Two-thirds of the 40% of people living in poverty in our city are also renters, and the potential that one fair wage holds for their ability to make ends meet and be more stably housed is tremendous. In our city, nobody working full-time should have to worry about making ends meet. In an economy where wages have been stagnant for the past 40 years as the costs of living have continued to climb, a solid baseline of one fair wage would create a foundation on which all workers can rise.

Residents benefiting from this wage increase will also have more disposable income to spend on supporting neighborhood businesses, which in turn fuels business development, worker retention, and a more stable citywide workforce. When you consider the costs to businesses who are unable to retain workers, and who take on significant worker retraining through the turnover that demanding low-wage jobs bring, the potential benefits of this policy to both employers and our citywide workforce warrant a serious discussion.

Lastly, increasing wages for our community is directly connected to our ability to have a truly representative democracy that creates opportunity for all. Income inequality is at its greatest crisis since the Great Depression in part because working people are literally pushed out of the policy-making process by way of the desperation and disruption that chronic poverty wreaks on their lives. In Saint Paul, 39% of residents who live in poverty are Black, with a majority of those workers also being women. The impacts of excluding entire communities from the political process, purely because they have to work, erodes our very democracy and fuels greater inequality. Residents who earn a living wage can spend their time pursuing their dreams and participating in civic engagement that helps our community. We need to break the cycle of political exclusion that is holding back our communities. A $15 minimum wage city-wide would help us do that.

As I’ve gotten the chance to speak with residents about this policy, I have heard both widespread excitement and a clear-eyed commitment to what it would take to make it work for our city. I believe that residents across our city collectively understand that this change would take time; that it can’t happen overnight; and that we will need to closely and meaningfully engage with businesses, tipped workers, workers and other stakeholder groups together, to examine what this policy could mean for them. I am committed as an aspiring City Councilmember to deeply engaging in these conversations. I respect and seek to address the apprehensions of individual non-profits, businesses and entrepreneurs who want to give the best quality of life possible to their workers but need our support. I am eager to hear from, listen to, and work with tipped workers who want to make sure they can continue to build their wealth in their profession of choice. 

Above all, I am serious about having this discussion in part because a policy like this one could change my life. My partner would be able to earn a living in a way that is sustainable for them. My neighbors who are working parents would be able to give their children a better quality of life. My friends who are hourly workers could remain stably employed and work their way toward advancements in their career. These are the realities we could achieve if our city engages in this discussion seriously, and in partnership with all who stand to be affected. I am committed to leading in this discussion. We have an opportunity to change the lives and economic prospects of thousands of our neighbors for the better. Let us hold a discussion on this possibility with due diligence, thoughtfulness, but also urgency – because working families in our city need change now.

I am hopeful about the prospect of what one fair wage could mean for thousands of people and families across our city – including mine.

Mitra Jalali Nelson is a renter, first-generation American, and millennial woman of color living in South Saint Anthony Park. She currently running as a DFL candidate for Ward 4 on the Saint Paul City Council in this year’s special election.

IssuesMitra Nelson