Guest Commentary

Quality jobs are key to economic advancement

John F. Murphy, co-chair of KC Rising and a Missouri Influencers panelist
John F. Murphy, co-chair of KC Rising and a Missouri Influencers panelist File photo

Currently, the federal poverty level for a single person is $12,140, while for a family of four with two children, it is $25,100. However, research suggests that, on average, an income equal to about two times the federal poverty threshold is needed to meet Americans’ most basic needs — $24,280 for a single person and $50,200 for a family of four.

EPI, the Economic Policy Institute, created its Family Budget Calculator to show how much it costs to live in various U.S. metro areas based on housing, child care, transportation, health care, other necessities and taxes. It measures the income a family would need to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living. EPI’s family budgets provide an accurate and complete measure of economic security in America.

EPI data suggest it costs $34,110 annually for a single person (one full-time job paying $16.40), $49,621 for a single parent with one child (one full-time job paying $23.86 an hour) or $73,042 for a family of four (two full-time jobs paying $17.56 an hour each) for an adequate standard of living in Missouri.

But in our state, the minimum wage is $7.85 an hour — meaning someone working 40 hours per week earns just $16,328 annually. Thus, there is a significant gap between the current minimum wage and an income needed to provide a comfortable standard of living.

It would be difficult to close that gap immediately through any type of legislative action, but we should certainly take steps to increase the minimum wage incrementally over a period of years. Also, we should be proactive in attempting to create job opportunities that pay higher wages.

One focus of the KC Rising initiative, which is aimed at creating a sustainable 20-plus-year vision to accelerate our region’s economic growth, is to increase the number of quality jobs here.

Quality jobs are defined as those in occupations that require at least a post-secondary degree or certification, or pay more than the U.S. median of $43,784 per year. Changes in median household income are typically a marker of what is happening to the standard of living of the middle class.

KC Rising’s overarching goals are not targeted at growth of minimum-wage jobs, but instead at putting more people into quality jobs through economic growth and inclusive opportunities for all. That includes:

▪  KC Degrees, providing access to adults who aspire to complete a college degree by engaging various parts of the community to align resources, remove barriers and create new pathways.

▪  KC Scholars, designed to increase the number of post-secondary degrees in the metro area by providing scholarships and college completion support to traditional students and adult learners. In addition, it supports college savings starting in ninth grade.

▪  Gateways KC, supporting the integration of new American citizens into the regional workforce creating an understanding of the economic value of immigrants, and ensuring employers are welcoming and culturally competent. In particular, the program is focused on attracting foreign students, especially in hard-to-fill STEM areas, and keeping them in the region after graduation.

▪  Gradforce KC, supporting post-secondary education that prepares graduates for jobs in high-demand fields by bringing businesses and educational institutions together. In partnership with the Lumina Foundation, it offers technical and planning assistance, data tools, flexible funding and the ability to customize degree plans.

At the end of the day, two things are readily apparent: First, everyone should have the opportunity to attain an adequate standard of living. Second, this issue needs to be addressed on multiple levels, including legislative action, education initiatives and corporate involvement.

John F. Murphy is a member of the executive committee of the Kansas City Area Development Council, co-chair of KC Rising and a Missouri Influencers panelist.