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News 13 Investigates: The cost of a living wage

Brianna Bullock, a single mother, works two jobs and still has to live with her mother because she doesn't make enough money for her and her daughter to live on their own. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series.

It's a common complaint heard throghout Asheville -- it's simply too expensive.

Many times, the cost of living becomes an issue because of how much you get paid. With the service and tourism industry so big, many people say they just don't make enough to cover their every day needs.

News 13's I-team is taking an in depth look at the problem and how to fix it.

BARELY GETTING BY

If you stop for lunch at French Fries, there's a good chance Brianna Bullock will happily take your order. But, behind her laugh is a life that's hard to imagine.

After working a lunch shift, she heads straight to her second job at a nearby grocery story. She said she works nearly 60 hours a week but barely scrapes by and is forced to live with her mother.

"I have to watch every penny," Bullock said.

She saves every penny, not for herself, but her daughter, who she said she simply can't afford to support.

"It's hard because she doesn't understand, but I just wouldn't be able to make it," said Bullock.

Savanna is six years old and has lived with relatives since she was a toddler.

"Sometimes, I'll just go and sit on her bed," Bullock said, tearing up.

Bullock misses her daughter every day but said her pay averages just $10.50 an hour. She said that's far from enough for a single mom to pay for a safe apartment, food and clothes for her little girl.

"It's very stressful. I don't know what it's like to have her on a daily basis. I have to be tough for her and for me," Bullock said.

PAYING A LIVING WAGE

Vicki Meath said Bullock's story is all too familiar in Asheville.

"I would love for people to maybe understand the struggles and the stories facing our neighbors who are struggling to live on a low income," Meath said.

She said half of all students in the Buncombe County Schools system live below the federal poverty line, showing just how widespread the problem has become.

"We think there is something fundamentally wrong when a full-time worker can't put a roof over their head or food on their table without some type of help," Meath said.

Which is why Just Economics is pushing companies to pay more, to pay what's called a living wage.

In Asheville, they say that wage is $13 an hour.

"A living wage is how much does it cost to get by in your area," Meath said.

Meath said the figure is based on a universal living wage formula, which says you shouldn't pay more than 30 percent of your income on housing.

In Asheville, $13 an hour adds up to a yearly salary of about $27,000. Meath said that's what's needed to get by without any public assistance.

She encourages businesses to voluntarily become living wage certified, in hopes that workers can do more than just survive.

"When people have more money in their pockets, when they are able to meet their basic needs, they are spending that money in their local economy," Meath said.

DOES IT WORK?

News 13 wanted to know if nearly doubling the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is sustainable and went to economist Anegla Dills.

"Somebody has to pay the higher wages, whether that's coming from consumers or whether that's coming from employers. It's probably a mix of those two things, but somebody is paying those higher wages," Dills said.

Dills admits increased pay can mean increased prices for consumers. She also worries that many companies couldn't survive such a big hit to their bottom lines.

"Here's a huge chunk of our work force that are now going to be earning almost twice as much as they might have earned with a minimum wage.That's a pretty significant increase in cost to businesses, cost to consumers and I suspect would lead to slower economic growth over the long run," Dills said.

But for Bullock, the answer is easy.Aa living wage means a livable future for her family.

"To better her, to give her that life, to be a child, to be able to play, enjoy life," Bullock said.

About 400 businesses in the Asheville area are certified living wage.



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