City Needs Higher Wages

Image of Oklahoma City skyline

The right wing here can and will spin it however it wants, but there’s simply no advantage in being known as a low-wage city or a low-wage state.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to a article, recently released information that shows wages in Oklahoma City are 12 percent lower than the national average. Average hourly wages here are $18.81 compared to $21.35 nationally. Wages here have gone up a little bit, but we’re still behind in many occupations.

The bright spot for the city is the high number of jobs related to the energy sector, but that, too, shows a lack of diversity that makes the city highly dependent on the fortunes of one industry.

In the past, the right-wing Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), a local think tank, has used this type of low-wage information to argue that teachers in particular don’t necessarily deserve raises here. I wrote about this in 2008, arguing the absurdity of its position with the following language:

… Gosh, those teachers might want to make more money. Who's next to want higher wages? The pharmacists? The nurses? Listen, the OCPA says, be happy with your low wages and underfunded schools. That's the way it is in Oklahoma. We're low income! "Me, too!" Hurray! (Oh yeah, except for the local rich people the OCPA represents.)

I’m unsure if OCPA will respond to these recent numbers, but its standard argument is that the low cost of living here qualifies low wages for everyone. We don’t make as much because we don’t spend as much. That’s the status quo for Oklahoma, and one that probably won’t change anytime soon.

My colleague Mickey Hepner, who is dean of the College of Business at the University of Central Oklahoma, was quoted in the article about the low wages, pointing out Oklahoma City is less expensive to live than other places. I doubt Hepner, who is a respected economist and writer, follows the OCPA line all of the time, but the correlation between low wages and a low cost of living in the Oklahoma City area deserves consistent debate.

As I’ve argued before, “… the cost-of-living argument has worn thin. It paralyzes and prevents effective action to improve the state’s quality of life.” Here are some other arguments:

(1) I think most everyone can agree that housing costs here are significantly lower than in many areas of the country, and this, of course, is a positive thing, especially for people who can afford to purchase homes above, say, $100,000. But low wages keep many people from even thinking about buying a home so they don’t get to share in the “bounty” of a low-cost-of-living city. This also keeps real estate prices down.

(2) A place with low wages will always have image problems. Oklahoma City has improved its image considerably in the last decade or so as a place where good things are happening but the underlying problems still exist even though they won’t be noted soon on any chamber of commerce brochures. Low wages is one of those problems. Who wants to move to a place to take a cut in pay and benefits? How does our image keep wages and growth depressed?

(3) Low wages can create a numbing psychological mindset among workers. Of course we make less money in Oklahoma because, well, it’s Oklahoma. This, in turn, can hurt productivity and lead to more social problems, such as addiction and mental illness. It also contributes to and is part of poor medical access here.

These arguments are not definitive. A lot more can be said about the basic, perpetuating economics of a low wage city or state, and there are more knowledgeable people than me on this topic. But the numbers show this place needs higher wages.