Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 | There’s a lot to clean up in downtown, Roni Wolf says. For a few blocks surrounding Fourth Avenue and Ash Street, Wolf pushes a yellow cart laden with half a dozen spray bottles, a broom, paper towels and a trash pick-up claw, erasing street messes and litter.

But for all of the garbage on the streets, there’s an even bigger mess concerning Wolf these days – the wages for low-income workers in San Diego. Though $9 per hour is more than many comparable jobs pay, she still finds it tough to make ends meet.

“It’s hard,” she said. “I’m barely scraping by.”

Wolf is not alone in her struggle. One in five San Diego full-time workers earned less than $25,000 in 2005, according to two U.S. Census Bureau surveys released Tuesday and analyzed by San Diego think tank Center on Policy Initiatives. CPI recently calculated the cost of living in San Diego for one adult with no children to be $25,950 annually – and that doesn’t include the cost of entertainment, insurance or savings.

The surveys, which reveal nearly stagnant national, statewide and local poverty rates for 2005, come just days after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed with Democratic legislative leaders on terms for an increase to the state minimum wage. That bill, which is under review in state Legislature this week but will likely be passed, would bump up the current state minimum wage of $6.75 per hour to $7.50 in January 2007 and then up to $8.00 a year after that.

Converted to annual salaries before taxes, the current minimum wage for a 40-hour-per-week job yields $14,040 annually. The wage on January 1, 2007 will bump up to $15,600 and the subsequent increase will yield $16,640 annually.

While workers like Wolf applaud the proposed increase, they do so knowing it’s still not going to be easy to live here.

Born and raised in San Diego, Wolf rents an apartment downtown and lives with her husband, her 17-year-old son, her 18-year-old daughter and her daughter’s child. Wolf’s husband works for their landlord and pays lower rent as a result, and their daughter makes $7.10 per hour at Del Taco, a fast-food chain. Wolf’s son is looking for a job as a condo sign flipper.

“[The flippers] make 10 bucks an hour!” Wolf said. “I hate the sun, but I guess I’m in the wrong line of work.”

The federal poverty threshold for Wolf’s family, with three working adults and two children aged 17 or younger, would be $15,735. The Census Bureau reported that 11 percent of people living in San Diego County fall under that poverty threshold, which varies according to number of adults and children per household. In the city, 13.5 percent live under that threshold.

But those numbers don’t take into account cost of living, many think tanks say. Analysts for CPI, which advocates for the working poor and labor-related issues, examined the federal statistics in light of the cost of living and found a more relevant indicator to be $25,000. Accommodation and food services industries in San Diego make up the largest low-wage sector, employing 92,594 workers at a median full-time wage of $21,242, according to CPI.

Wages aren’t the only obstacle faced by low-income workers. Five months ago, Wolf suffered a painful tear in her hip socket after bumping into a table at a Del Taco restaurant. She’s still paying off her medical bills and said the experience demonstrated the necessity of health coverage for her family.

“I need those benefits,” she said. “I’m 43 years old and I’m not getting any younger.”

Statewide, 21.3 percent of Californians under the age of 65 lacked health coverage in 2005, according to the Current Population Survey, one of the Census reports released yesterday.

The census reports are viewed by some to bring good news – at least the poverty rates haven’t risen, some say. But for many people concerned with the plight of the low-income worker, they just emphasize how far the state – and the San Diego region – are from truly affordable places to live and work.

“It’s not all good news,” said Paul Karr, CPI spokesman. “We’re going on three or four years of so-called economic recovery, but nothing’s changed in the poverty levels. That’s a real issue.”

Karr points out larger increases in job growth in the high-wage and low-wage ends of the income spectrum. He said CPI has noticed declines in job growth for the middle class for a number of years.

“We’ve termed it the ‘hourglass economy,’” he said. “It will really limit opportunities for the future.”

Gary Moss of San Diego-based Workforce Partnership said the minimum wage increase will be a good thing overall for the state.

“It will help raise people’s spending power,” he said. “Give them an opportunity to afford better basics and maybe afford a little bit of luxury items.”

Business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce opposed the wage-increase proposal, warning that the spike in payroll costs might force companies to lay off employees, raise prices or even leave the state. If the bill passes, California will be tied with Massachusetts in 2007 for fourth-highest minimum wage in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

While Jean Ross of the Sacramento-based California Budget Project feels that the increase is an “important step forward,” she doesn’t see things as optimistically as Moss does.

“It simply won’t get them to what it would cost even a single individual to live in the state,” she said.

Ross said moving forward, policy makers will need to examine more factors than just wage – they’ll need to look at ways of making housing, health care and day care more affordable.

“The two sides have to work together,” she said.

Karr posited that the concept of a minimum wage increase is inherently political. Often, he said, the debate results less often in workable solutions and more often in a wage increase that is just a sign of “goodwill and kindness toward the people” from government officials.

Still, Wolf said, any step is a good step for helping the low-income population.

“It’s about time,” she said of the pending wage increase. “It’s long overdue.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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