Virginia Workers Need a $15 Minimum Wage

15032315_10100597666233969_5720057816396088406_nBy Christopher Gray

Today, many Virginia workers face stark choices without easy answers. Even as cuts in public funding cause college tuition to rise at an unreasonable rate and with a student debt crisis that threatens to spiral out of control, the percentage of Americans over 25 with a college degree continues to grow at historic rates.

Approximately 32 percent of American adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, and a high level of educational attainment has largely become a pre-requisite for finding a path to financial stability in today’s knowledge economy.

This means that as much as 68 percent of the population lacks the easy access to upward social mobility that is so foundational to the American Dream. Looking for a reason why our political climate has become less than sane? That’s a good place to start.

There are many other problems with our current social model, including professional jobs for college grads becoming increasingly clustered in a small number of metropolitan areas where the cost of living is exorbitant.

According to George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, this dynamic has created a society with historically low rates of geographic and social mobility, high rates of racial and socio-economic segregation, low levels of innovation, and stagnant growth.

Indeed, the high cost of living in job-rich areas such as Northern Virginia costs the American economy as much as $1.7 trillion in GDP annually. Simply put, many highly qualified people lack the means or are otherwise unable to relocate to areas where they can find meaningful employment.

Having lived in a friend’s dining room for six months while working two jobs and an internship when I first arrived in the D.C. area, I am well acquainted with how the toxic mix of high student loans, insane housing market and uber-completive economy keeps workers on the razor’s edge of financial insecurity and personal uncertainty. I do not want future generations to struggle with this same reality. We need to do better for our Commonwealth.

With many high paying manufacturing jobs outsourced to low wage countries with poor labor and environmental standards, many Virginians are working two or three jobs just to maintain an increasingly unstable day to day life.

We need to guarantee a living wage for workers if we want a more stable economy and political environment. Automation is going to follow in the footsteps of free trade agreements in reducing working class jobs, while Virginia’s longstanding anti-labor politics continue to allow highly profitable companies to maximize their share of our state’s wealth at the expense of workers.

Some will argue that increasing the minimum wage will have a job killing effect on Virginia’s economy, even though there is no statistical evidence to support that conclusion.

I would counter that even if some low wage jobs are lost because we decide to adopt a living wage, others will open up as people no longer have to work multiple low paying jobs to make rent in the absence of a livable minimum wage. As of today, a fulltime worker making the state’s $7.25 minimum wage brings home about $1160 per month before taxes. That’s barely enough to pay for a room in Northern Virginia, let alone support a family.

The truth is, a full-time worker making Virginia’s minimum wage will bring home less than $14,000 a year. That’s not enough to make ends meet anywhere, even in less expensive rural areas.

We may have become conditioned to believe that workers are not supposed to see their living standards improve even as the economy and worker productivity continue to grow, but that’s only because when it comes to improving the lives of workers our politicians succumb to the disproportionate influence that a very small class of wealthy individuals have over our political process.

Virginia’s elected officials – Republicans and Democrats — need to confront their donors with support for basic redistributive economic policies that will more equitably share the wealth generated by Virginia workers.

Parents who are able to survive while working only one job can spend more time helping their children with school and improving their communities. Non-college educated workers will be able to live financially stable and secure lives — a basic dignity that anyone working a full-time job should be guaranteed.

There is no moral justification for living in a society that creates a permanent class of the working poor – and that is what happens when upward social mobility becomes a rare exception. Enough is enough: it’s time to raise the minimum wage.

Christopher Gray is a native Virginian, graduate of James Madison University, and Arlington Young Democrat. He has been active in the Democratic Party of Virginia for more than 15 years and has served as the Chair of Virginia Young Democrats Environmental Policy Caucus and Party Representative for the Arlington Young Democrats. This article originally appeared on the ArlNow.com website.

Immigration and Glimmers of Hope

BillRiceHeadshotBy Bill Rice

In the age of the Trump administration and its new, draconian immigration policies, many Arlingtonians are looking for ways to stand with their immigrant neighbors and actively fight back against such intolerant measures.

Thankfully, such an avenue for action occurred on March 28 as members of the Arlington community gathered at Patrick Henry Elementary School for an immigration-focused community forum, sponsored by the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

Forum panelists included Michele Waslin, senior research and policy analyst at the American Immigration Council; Azaz Elshami, a Sudanese human rights activist who was affected by the travel ban; Tram Nguyen, co-executive director for the New Virginia Majority; Laura Peralta-Schulte, senior government relations advocate at the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; and Karen Vallejos, a graduate of Arlington Public Schools and a DREAMer.

The panelists provided information and action items at the federal, state and local levels.

At the federal level, Waslin outlined a number of pernicious policy goals of the Trump administration, including plans to significantly decrease refugee resettlement in the United States, block entry of individuals from certain Muslim-majority countries, drastically curtail legal asylum for those fleeing violence in Central America (many of them mothers with their children), potentially end the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, and introduce new barriers to legal immigration.

The Trump administration has also moved away from the prior deportation policy of targeting individuals who are serious criminals and/or a security threat to the United States. Trump’s new deportation policy, Waslin said, is “so overly broad” that it would make all 11 million undocumented individuals a priority for deportation.

The panelists urged people to contact their elected representatives to not only voice their opposition to these policies but also voice their support for comprehensive immigration reform that prioritizes humanitarian-based, employment-based, and family-unification-based immigration policies – with a legal pathway for otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants.

At the state level, Nguyen explained, “it’s not enough to protest…it’s not enough to attend rallies.” People must help register new Americans to vote, resist General Assembly legislation targeting immigrants and promote General Assembly legislation supporting immigrants.

Nguyen also stated that Virginians should resist attempts to turn local law enforcement into immigration/deportation agents (like through 287(g) agreements), explaining that “when you have local law enforcement dealing with immigration issues, it has very chilling effect on community policing.”

Peralta-Schutle explained that while Arlington is “fortunate to have a really strong network of activists” working on immigration issues, there is still much to be done.

Forum attendees specifically requested clearer answers from County officials on the role of ICE in our county jails and schools.

Perhaps most heart wrenching were the personal testimonies of Elshami and Vallejos.

Vallejos elaborated on her experiences as a DREAMer in the Arlington school system and community — “I figured we were going forward and we were progressing but after this election things changed,” she said.

For Elshami, the travel ban was a particularly frightening and perplexing experience. Born in Sudan, she left the country at age 3, eventually arriving in the U.S. through the lottery program. She has worked as an activist against policies of the Sudanese government. “I was really happy that finally I had found a place where I can call home and feel safe.”

The travel ban changed this atmosphere. Abroad when Trump issued the first ban, she was unable to return to the U.S. solely because of her Sudanese birth, while her 77-year-old mother remained in the U.S. alone. After the courts enjoined Trump’s order, Elshami was able to return.

“I saw a different face of America. This is not the U.S.,” said Elshami, who began to develop panic attacks during this time period at the prospect of the U.S. permanently sending her back to Sudan. “It shocked me…something beautiful, something ideal, something that you really associated yourself with…it turned into something smeared.”

Yet Elshami experienced a glimmer of hope the moment she returned to Dulles International Airport and saw that members of the Dulles Justice Coalition, a group of volunteer attorneys and activists, had established a presence at the airport to assist those affected by the ban.

“Knowing that there are lawyers sitting out there, giving their time…that was great…that was America,” Elshami said. “That made me feel like not all is lost.”

Hopefully we all can continue to strive for the America Elshami saw at that moment.

Bill Rice works as a government consultant. He serves as a volunteer in the Arlington community and with the Dulles Justice Coalition, a “nonpartisan alliance of individual volunteers from legal non-profits, law firms, and all walks of life.” This article originally appeared on the ArlNow.com website.

Integrating Arlington into Regional Progress

image1By: Nicole Merlene

For decades, Arlington has been at the forefront of community planning and development trends in the D.C. metro region, leading to significant economic successes.

For example, we advocated for and helped finance an underground Metro system along the Wilson Boulevard corridor that spurred development in areas like Ballston, once known primarily for car dealerships, and Rosslyn, which had problems with gang crime – turning them into leading neighborhoods in the County.

ART was created in 1998 to provide intra-County transit and affordable access to Metro hubs. After these milestones, we still have important work to do to achieve new heights as a leader in regional economic vitality.

To do so, Arlington should be more proactive in our approach to build on the successes we have created and move forward successfully. We are in need of honest self-reflection about our role and place in the DMV.

First, we should exercise greater leadership roles in regional planning discussions. A more active and consistent role by Arlington representatives with these stakeholder groups is essential to both our County and regional economic development goals. Too often we are presented with options rather than formulating and presenting them.

Second, with Arlington’s physical size restrictions, a commercial vacancy rate near 20%, a population considered fully employed, and housing prices that have been skyrocketing for decades, it is imperative that we provide a state of the art transitive community to move people as easily as possible into and out of Arlington to entice major employers to move here.

Commercial real estate taxes provide almost half of Arlington’s revenue, so we should be creative in finding ways, including net positive incentives and expenditures, to lower the commercial vacancy rate. Greater and more sustainable economic development will increase the county’s resources and the community benefits that we enjoy in Arlington.

Third, we need a widely-known and available “economic development toolbox” for developers, employers, and other community stakeholders to access and easily understand incentives for doing business in Arlington.

Our highly-educated population has been a potent tool in driving development to date, but there are programs at the local, state, and federal level that have been underutilized. At the federal level, programs such as New Market Tax Credits incentivize new development in areas that include census tracts surrounding areas like Ballston and Crystal City. On the state level, many programs remain largely untapped.

With a fully integrated economic development toolkit, we can maximize the accessibility and impact to our community.

If we are not proactive and innovative we won’t merely stay the way we are, we will lose out to competing localities that are more active in pursuing major employers aggressively – including federal agencies.

Other major cities have taken on and successfully contracted creative solutions for economic development incentives. New York City, for example, has taken on a $20 billion initiative for 2025 — OneNYC — to improve infrastructure, environmental, and social service assets across the city. They are relying on public-private-partnerships with private capital firms that invest in infrastructure and finding other creative financing solutions that benefit the both residents and business interests.

Various West Coast cities are developing plans with Uber to create large scale ride-sharing that is affordable for their respective metro regions.

At the same time, we should not only be looking at new possibilities, but also maximizing existing assets – ensuring that ART bus routes are highly efficient, Metro is properly maintained, and we are also taking seriously other infrastructure priorities such as the Arlington Memorial Bridge. We cannot merely wait for the federal government when faced with systemic failures.

There is little progressives and conservatives can agree on these days, but if Senator Schumer and President Trump are serious about getting an infrastructure deal done then our Congressional delegation needs to be sure it works for Arlington. In the same vein, Arlington needs to be ready to assert viable infrastructure options in anticipation of an infrastructure deal that may well be on the table.

To assure that we are heavily engaged in discussions on all levels, we also need to forge consensus within our County. Of course no solution pleases everyone – especially without consideration of multiple options guided by proactive initiatives for receiving community feedback.

In addition to our County Commissions, we should be attentive to conversations in forums such as the Civic Federation, various Business Improvement Districts, and more. Proactive and innovative idea communities can also serve as a great way to get more people more fully engaged.

Nicole Merlene is a member of the Board of Directors of the Arlington Young Democrats and the North Rosslyn Civic Association. She is Associate Director of Public Policy for Invest in the USA. This article originally appeared on the ArlNow.com website.

Land Deal Should Benefit Psychiatric Ward

Jarrod-Nagurka-1By: Jarrod Nagurka

Last December, the Arlington County Board moved forward with plans to give the Virginia Hospital Center (VHC) the option to purchase County-owned land (either with cash or through a land swap) adjacent to the hospital. The land became available after the County’s Department of Human Services (DHS) moved its programs from that location to the Sequoia complex.

The likely VHC expansion provides the hospital with the opportunity to make important improvements to its psychiatric ward to better serve Arlingtonians with serious mental illness (SMI).

As many as 300,000 Virginians live with SMI, including thousands here in Arlington. Individuals with SMI are often diagnosed with disorders ranging from schizophrenia to severe bipolar. And just like any other illness, mental illness can affect anyone — one in 17people live with SMI. Considering its impact on friends and family, chances are you or someone you know is affected by it.

Left untreated, SMI can be devastating. However, for those who receive proper treatment and management, there is hope.

Individuals can go through recovery and lead fulfilling lives as productive members of society. High-quality psychiatric services are proven to reduce future hospitalizations and jail visits. That’s why it’s so important that we ensure individuals have access to services that align with industry best practices. It’s not just the right thing to do morally, but it’s smart economics too.

VHC’s potential expansion is an opportunity for the hospital to meet the community’s great unmet need for additional mental health services.

In FY 2016, 208 (42%) individuals in treatment with DHS who were deemed by a magistrate in Arlington to be a risk to themselves or others couldn’t get a bed at VHC because there were no psychiatric beds available. Moreover, this only reflects some of those turned away from VHC. It doesn’t count individuals who are seeing private providers, individuals who are not in treatment at all or individuals who voluntarily sought psychiatric hospitalizations.

To meet Arlington’s true demand for psychiatric services, VHC should use an expansion to take two major steps to better serve our community:

  1. Expand the number of psychiatric beds. Arlington has far fewer psychiatric beds than the generally accepted standard of 50 per 100,000 residents. As a result, those in need of hospitalization often have to seek services located hours away. This forces individuals to receive treatment far from family, friends and doctors. While VHC has said they will seek to expand overall beds, they have thus far not committed to using these beds for psychiatric purposes rather than in other, oftentimes more profitable, wards.
  1. Move the psychiatric ward out of the basement. During a renovation roughly a decade ago, VHC moved the psychiatric ward to the hospital’s basement with no exposure to natural light. This is VHC’s only inpatient ward located underground. Lack of sunlight has proven to lead to depression and is certainly not conducive to recovery. Additional space should allow VHC to move its psychiatric ward above ground and configure and equip it in accordance with best practices to include ample natural light.

Though there’s a stigma often, though fortunately less so over time, attached to mental illness, the truth is that SMI can affect anyone at a moment’s notice — even someone who has not previously exhibited symptoms. Just like a stroke, heart attack or any other medical emergency, those experiencing a psychotic break need access to emergency services immediately.

It is very unfortunate that Arlingtonians currently living with SMI are often forced to undergo treatment in VHC’s underground psychiatric ward (if a bed is even available) or seek treatment hours away.

In Arlington, we embrace the idea that we’re stronger together — measured not by individual success but by how we collectively care for our most vulnerable neighbors. Nobody believes that someone having a stroke should have to drive hours away for treatment or recover in a basement. We shouldn’t tolerate those conditions for Arlingtonians living with SMI either.

Commendably, Virginia Hospital Center prides itself on its desire to meet the healthcare needs of the community. In many areas, VHC lives up to this goal and provides world-class healthcare services. By committing to use newly acquired land to improve its psychiatric services, VHC can yet again demonstrate its commitment to serving our community.

Jarrod Nagurka is a lifelong Arlingtonian. He was appointed by the County Board in 2015 to the Arlington Community Services Board, an oversight body for services provided by DHS. Jarrod has previously worked in the state legislature and on federal, state, and local political campaigns in Virginia. He currently works in education policy. This article originally appeared on the ArlNow.com website.

The Youth Vote and Moving Virginia Democracy Forward

Isabel-Alcalde-and-Alex-ChandlerBy Isabel Alcalde and Alex Chandler

While some of the individual results may be important, proponents of a fair and representative democracy see little to celebrate overall in the 2015 Virginia general election results.

Only 26.5% of eligible voters turned out to vote on Nov. 3. Only 29 out of the 100 House races had a two-party contest. Of those, only six races were seen as truly competitive. Thus, the Washington Post lamented that 2015 was “a carnival of cakewalks” that left the average Virginia voter “powerless.”

Inspire Virginia is a civic engagement organization based in Arlington. We are supported by Project High Hopes, a nonprofit organization that was founded by Ira Lechner, who once represented Arlington in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Through its work, Inspire Virginia has an understanding of the frustrations identified by the Washington Post and experienced by voters. We believe that hope lies in the youth vote and that is why we support and empower high school student leaders to mobilize the youth vote.

A healthy and representative democracy requires ideas, debate, and votes from every demographic. Young people offer unique attributes that could energize Virginia elections and the political process:

  • Young people are more likely than other age groups to be unaffiliated with a specific party and want candidate interaction beyond just party identification.
  • Surveys in 2000 and 2008 showed 18 to 29 year-olds cared about candidates’ positions on issues over leadership/personal qualities more than any other age group.
  • Studies show active young voters influence members of households to go and vote. It’s simple: young people bring others along with them to vote.

Inspire Virginia is working to transform the way the youth vote is viewed; we must empower every eligible high school student to vote as soon as they are eligible.

In August, Inspire Virginia brought together 60 students from 18 different high schools in six different counties, including Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. Together, these students formed Inspire Virginia’s inaugural class.

Inspire Virginia recruits three or four exceptional leaders in partner high schools across the state.  These juniors and seniors must be willing and committed to improving Virginia’s democracy, starting with their own schools.

We educate, train, and ultimately, inspire these student leaders to return to their schools and mobilize their peers to participate in the democratic process. Our mission is to inspire student leaders in each high school across the state to register every eligible student and empower those students to vote. Already, these “Inspired Leaders” are reaching out to community leaders and asking for greater inclusion of youth in the democratic process.

In the weeks since the summer conference, Inspired Leaders have worked to register 172 voters, and nearly 900 of their peers have pledged to register when they become eligible. These 1,072 youth votes are just the beginning.

As one of our student leaders, Jessica Edwards, a junior at Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes High School, wrote:

“It’s truly incredible to see all the amazing work that other schools are doing through Inspire so quickly. Additionally, it’s great to know that the stereotype that youths are apathetic and lazy is certainly false, as proven by the work of Inspire Leaders all over the nation. “

The coming year presents a unique opportunity for all of us to engage the youth vote. Virginia law allows 17 year-olds to register and vote in primary elections as long as they will turn 18 by the general election. For 2016, that means many seniors can register and vote in both the March presidential primary and the June primary for Congress and other offices. These are two opportunities for young people to become active voters — and get in the habit of voting — even before graduating high school.

Our state, by incorporating the collective youth demographic into Virginia civic life, will reinvigorate an elections process that has been criticized as stale and ineffective. This is why Inspire Virginia is working to register thousands of new, interactive voters across the state. We hope you will join us in welcoming and supporting these new additions to the electorate. For more information, visit our website.

Isabel Alcalde and Alex Chandler are Program Coordinators for Inspire Virginia. Inspire Virginia is the seventh state chapter of Inspire US, a unique program dedicated to supporting students in a year-long civic experience. This article originally appeared on the ArlNow.com website.