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January 29, 2015

The Other Side of This Week’s Good Jobs Numbers

It’s been a good couple of months for Virginia’s economy, and that’s worth celebrating.

But we shouldn’t forget that too many Virginians are still facing tough times. Meanwhile, Virginia legislators seem intent on resisting any changes that would patch Virginia’s frayed safety net and improve protections for low-income working Virginians.

There are still 70,000 more unemployed Virginians than before the recession, according to newly released jobs data. And tens of thousands of additional working-age Virginians are missing from the labor force: unable to find work for an unusually long stretch, they’ve just given up. Virginia’s working-age population has grown 9.9 percent in the past seven years, but the number of jobs in Virginia has grown just 0.5 percent.

Not only are there still too few jobs, many of the recently-added ones don’t provide the building blocks of a stable life – decent pay, health care, and pensions or retirement plans.

More than four in ten of the jobs that Virginia has added in the past three months are in leisure and hospitality, which typically pay low wages. In addition, access to health insurance through the workplace has been falling for many years.

We can fix this. Policymakers can take steps to help make sure Virginians who have jobs are able to pay their bills and don’t have to stay up at night trying to decide whether to pay the electric company or the doctor. Working Virginians should earn enough to be able to support themselves and their families at a basic but decent standard of living.

Restoring the value of the minimum wage so that a full-time, year-round worker can support a small family above the poverty level would be a start. Making Virginia’s earned income credit refundable would help families and offset some of the disproportionate impact of state and local taxes on low-income taxpayers. And closing the coverage gap so low-income working-age Virginians can get primary health care without facing punishing bills would not only help the state’s uninsured people, it would also provide federal funding that would help balance Virginia’s budget.

But Virginia legislators are resisting these types of common sense improvements at every turn, and they’re resisting policies that would patch some of the holes in Virginia’s frayed safety net.

The current maximum Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit for a family of three in Virginia is just $389 a month. That’s less than a quarter of what it takes to keep a family above the poverty line and well below prior levels after adjusting for inflation. But policymakers have chosen in recent years to fund other priorities instead of helping restore TANF benefit levels. And they’ve also cut funding for a range of non-profit programs that serve struggling Virginians.

We need a Virginia where people who get knocked down by the economy are able to maintain some level of stability for themselves and their kids so they can get back on their feet and their kids can stay focused on their education. Instead we have such a weak safety net that too many Virginians just keep falling until they hit rock bottom.

We need a Virginia where working parents have enough income to support their families and aren’t one emergency room visit away from bankruptcy. Instead we have a system where many full-time, year-round workers make too little to support a family and legislators are leaving hundreds of thousands of Virginians in the coverage gap.

That’s not good for the economy. It’s not good for Virginia families. And it’s just not right.

– Laura Goren, Senior Policy Analyst

The Commonwealth Institute

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