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Economic mobility task force hampered by N.C. law 

No minimum wage raise for you!

In January, a new Mecklenburg County task force is supposed to start finding ways to help poor residents climb out of poverty. However, because of North Carolina's oddball rules of governance, the task force will not be able to propose one of the most promising tools currently being used by some American cities to combat poverty: a higher minimum wage.

North Carolina, unlike 31 other states, does not have unlimited "home rule," meaning that N.C. cities and counties may not pass new revenue-generating laws without permission from the General Assembly. Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann explained that state law specifically bans municipalities from imposing certain conditions on local employers "such as paying minimum wage or providing paid sick leave to its employees."

Why are the state's restrictions a big deal for the economic mobility task force? Because 1) Raises in the minimum wage are being tried in a number of American cities and states, and the results so far seem promising; and 2) The GOP-controlled legislature is not likely to approve a raise in the minimum wage, nor give the OK for North Carolina cities to do so.

The GOP's intransigence on the minimum wage issue is controversial, particularly after a July 2014 joint study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Goldman Sachs — hardly a voice of liberal spending — showed that the 13 states where minimum wage increases went into effect Jan. 1 saw faster job growth than those where minimum wage stayed the same. The researchers note that raising the minimum wage doesn't automatically create new jobs, but it does give evidence that runs counter to common conservative objections, which claim that raising the minimum wage costs jobs.

Another study, this one by UC-Berkeley, looked at nine cities that raised their minimum wage, and found that the raises had no measurable effect on employment, one way or the other. What they did find, however, was that the raises spurred consumer spending in those cities, thus boosting local economies.

Mecklenburg's economic mobility task force is an indirect result of a January 2014 study by Harvard University and UC-Berkeley, which looked at poverty in America's 50 largest cities. Local leaders were stunned by the study's conclusion that poor children in Charlotte have less chance of moving out of poverty than kids in any of the other cities studied. That report led County Commission Chair Trevor Fuller to describe the county's increasing poverty as "intractable" and promised to get a task force together to identify the root causes and present the commission with plans for acting on the problem.

The committee will be co-chaired by Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a physician and Novant Health senior vice president, and U.S. Bank executive Dee O'Dell. Both co-chairs say they plan to have a "very diverse" group of people involved; the task force will doubtless include local business and religious leaders and actual, for-real, low-income folks to hopefully keep the discussions based in the reality that poor people face day to day. We were unsuccessful in attempts to speak with Garmon-Brown for her take on the task force, despite numerous tries.

Some local elected officials were unwilling to go on record regarding the task force. They were skeptical of either the task force's worth or its likelihood of producing practical solutions. Two officials mentioned a current local task force they fear is falling short of expectations: the city's Immigration Integration Task Force, which is slated to recommend policies to ease access to city services and increase civic engagement by immigrants. "There's an impression that they're not getting very far in their project," said an official who would only speak off the record, calling Charlotte task forces "where good ideas go to die." Another official expects the highlight of the economic mobility confab "will be when they serve the sandwiches at the first meeting."

Other local lawmakers were more positive, albeit guardedly. City Councilman John Autry said he's "hopefully optimistic" that the task force will be worthwhile, "as long as they come up with real, concrete actions to help the situation — with the understanding that government can't correct the problem on its own; the business community will have to step up, too, which, in the long run, will be to their great advantage."

Councilwoman Claire Fallon would love for the task force to succeed, and thinks it's a good way to draw attention to the problem of ongoing poverty. However, she said, "We've been talking a long time about this, and I wish I could be more optimistic that something will happen now, but ... what's really needed is for people to be paid a real living wage."

Unfortunately, that is one thing the task force will not be able to recommend.

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