“Cincinnatians aren’t poor because they’re not working. They’re poor because their jobs don’t pay a living wage.”
—“The State of Our Downtown”
The Queen City of Cincinnati is home to the corporate headquarters of thirteen Fortune 1000 companies. In 2011, these companies earned combined profits of nearly $17 billion, and their CEOs took home more than $103 million in pay. Macy’s, for example, netted over $1.25 billion; Fifth Third Bancorp took in $1.3 billion; and Kroger enjoyed profits of over $600 million. The New York Times recently described the town as “emerging again as a hub of civic and economic vitality.”
But for too many working people that economic vitality isn’t translating into good jobs with living wages. The city is one of the poorest in the nation, with a poverty rate of 30.6 percent, according to 2010 US Census data. A 2011 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty found that 48 percent of children live below the poverty line—the third-worst child poverty rate in the country. According to SEIU Local 1, even though unemployment is on the decline in the city, poverty and racial segregation are on the rise.
That’s why the current negotiations for a new contract between Cincinnati janitors and cleaning contractors are worth paying attention to. The talks began back in September, but have received little media coverage due to the 2012 election. About 1,000 janitors and their families are directly affected by this contract, and low-wage workers throughout the city who are looking for better pay and benefits are affected indirectly.
The average full-time janitor currently makes just $17,836 annually cleaning the offices of these multibillion-dollar companies. Not only is that below the poverty line of $18,106 for a family of three, it’s also just over half the estimated annual cost of living in the city—$33,347 for a one-parent, one-child family to pay for basic necessities.
As a result of these poverty wages, many full-time janitors qualify for programs such as food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, and housing assistance, so the public ends up picking up the tab for corporations that aren’t willing to pay a living wage. (That’s in addition to corporate subsidies like the $52 million in tax incentives Cincinnati offered Convergys Corp—which earned nearly $335 million in profits last year—for renovating its headquarters.)
“These programs exist for people who are going through hard times,” said Dina Smith, a janitor in the city for five years, who lives with her 17-year-old son in a housing project. “You’re supposed to use them as a safety net and then get off them. But how is anyone supposed to get off these programs when we’re not paid enough to survive without them?”