Starvation Wages in Georgia: One Choice, Millions of Human Fates

A black pastor and a 33-year-old – the January Senate election in Georgia will decide what the intended US President Biden can do at all. It’s about racism, health insurance and above all about fair wages.

When the sun has almost gone, the Reverend steps out of the church door, only a few meters. The suit without blame, the glasses rimless, the gestures carefully measured. An assistant makes sure that nobody approaches the prominent speaker; but apart from two drinkers in front of the nearby liquor store there is almost no one to be seen anyway. It hardly takes five minutes before Raphael Warnock has said his sentences for the recording, the cameraman packs up again and the three disappear back inside. Across the street, a security woman is guarding the stone coffin of Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott. “The dream is alive” can be read at the foot of the memorial fire.

A few years ago, the Afro-American pastor of the Ebenezer congregation was not so peaceful. In March 2014, he and other demonstrators went on strike in protest at the Georgia seat of government. They wanted the governor, a Republican, to expand state health insurance, contrary to his earlier opposition, as Obamacare had made possible and intended. At some point, the police also took Warnock away in handcuffs. Since then he is no longer just a Baptist clergyman, but also a politician. The 51-year-old and his 33-year-old party colleague Jon Ossoff want to win the state’s two senatorial seats in the runoff election on January 5, 2021.

Ossoff and Warnock, who have been campaigning together for months, know about the main problems: starvation wages and non-existent or incomplete health insurance. The local African American “Citizen Radio” broadcasts commercials from Warnock and Stacey Abrams, the pioneer in the success of the Georgia Democrats. Warnock promises better health care and dignified pay almost in a continuous loop. “Somebody like me shouldn’t be running,” says the clergyman. Grew up in a social housing, the mother picking tobacco and cotton, sometimes hunger closer than payday. “If you want someone who knows your challenges from personal experience, I’ll be your man,” warned Warnock for the votes of the blacks. The Ebenezer Church is one of the most influential among African Americans in the United States.

The historic Ebenezer Church. One block away, murals by Martin Luther King and George Floyd look down on passers-by.

(Photo: Roland Peters)

Joe Biden won Georgia for the Democrats for the first time in nearly three decades, albeit extremely narrowly. Key to its success is that the party’s activists over the past few years have made it clear to hundreds of thousands of African Americans that they are entitled to Obamacare and have registered them as voters. In order to give Biden a majority in the Senate in addition to the presidency, dollars are now flowing into Georgia from all over the country. In polls, Ossoff and Warnock are roughly on par with Republican David Perdue and Republican Kelly Loeffler, who currently represent the state in the US Senate. The four Senate candidates have spent at least $ 231 million on television advertising alone. Biden could introduce controversial projects in the White House by decree even without a Senate majority, but they are much more volatile than laws.

About nine million people in the United States are getting by on state food stamps, though half of them work full-time. The minimum wage has been unchanged at $ 7.25 for more than a decade. Most states raised it arbitrarily – Georgia did not. In the same period of time, living in the USA has become significantly more expensive. According to the US statistics agency, single people without a child would have to earn at least 16 percent more, now $ 1,192 a month, to escape poverty. In a three-person household with two adults and one child, it is even 19 percent more, an income of $ 1,469 per month.

Hard-working, willing to learn, poor

Quita Mae Dawson finds himself in such a situation. This is how the 24-year-old wants to be called in order not to attract the anger of her employer “Dollar General”. “The whole company is just a lie,” she annoys. The African American woman stands in the spacious parking lot of a typical strip mall, about half an hour’s drive from downtown: a hairdresser, a laundry, two supermarkets and a food truck within sight. Quita Mae Dawson has just finished her shift and is waiting for her husband and little daughter to pick her up. “They don’t want to pay any more wages and they don’t send any support when you need it.”

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(Photo: Roland Peters)

Quita Mae Dawson is employed, but is only paid per hour worked. She started three years ago as a cashier with less than nine dollars an hour, now she is “Assistant Store Manager” and receives twelve dollars. For a maximum of 35 hours a week, she earns just over $ 300 net. The money almost never enough. There is hardly any vacation, but at least she has health insurance through the company. Even so, she always has to pay the first $ 525 in treatment herself. “It’s tough out here,” she says in frustration. Her husband only earns the minimum wage, so she pays for most of it. She wants to get out of the low-wage trap by studying.

Even on this late afternoon, the aisles in the supermarket are still full of trolleys with new goods. “There are so many things to do in one shift. We just can’t do some things,” she says tiredly. She is often called and has to drive her old car to other branches. Actually, she should get a mileage allowance, but it is often not paid: “A union might help.” For gasoline, oil changes, “whatever breaks that old Honda Civic, I have to take care of it,” she lists.

Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General: At any intersection near Atlanta you will always find one of the chains that have developed into mom and pop shops on a US scale. On average earned a full-time cashier in Georgia is about $ 1,000 a month. While tens of thousands of stores across the country have to close, the two big companies continue to grow. For example, Dollar General plans to open around 1,000 new branches at the end of the year as planned. Last year there were more than 33,000 such stores in the US, of which at least 17,000 dollars are now General with 157,000 employees.

Class lawsuits for wage robbery

The low wages are part of a huge problem: In Georgia got a few years ago 45 percent of employees less than $ 15 gross per hour, nationally it was 42 percent. The Democrats want to change that and have announced a gradual increase in the minimum wage to this mark by 2026. Around 27 million workers would get more money as a result, calculated the statistical service of the US Congress. 1.3 million people would escape poverty. But the Republican Senators in Georgia would have to be replaced.

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Against David Perdue comes Jon Ossoff.

(Photo: Roland Peters)

Perdue, whose Senate seat Ossoff wants to take over, was the head of Dollar General from 2003 to 2007. Perdue opened more than 100 new stores in Georgia alone during that time, made the company profitable, and then sold it. The current senator earned more than $ 50 million with it. His former employees accused him of wage theft in several class action lawsuits: Dollar General had declared her a manager and let her work up to 80 hours a week without additional pay via a loophole in labor law. Women got less money than men. In the corresponding annual reports, the company prides itself on having a “lean occupation of two to three employees” per shop, warns of higher minimum wages and unions. The company paid at least $ 42 million in compensation after his departure. As a politician, Perdue has remained true to his line.

About a third of the customers in dollar stores live near the poverty line. But the businesses are not only a sign of precarious conditions, they also cause them, criticizes the Institute for Local Self-Sufficiency. The chain stores are spreading rapidly, especially in the suburbs and rural areas, and are destroying the economic cycle and income there. One dollar store opens and pays low wages, the other stores in town cannot compete and go bankrupt. Because whether kitchen utensils, groceries and sweets, colorful paper unicorns or plush toys, almost everything is available cheaply in the new shop, as the companies have a lot import from china.

The changed majorities in Georgia have been announced for decades. The year 2020, when the state turned blue, the color of the Democrats, may in retrospect be declared a turning point at some point. Most of the 10.6 million people live in the greater Atlanta area. The population here has been growing rapidly for more than half a century, by an average of 30 percent in every census since 1960. There are now over six million people, more than a third of whom describe themselves as black or African-American. In the past two decades, the suburbs have also changed, they are no longer inhabited only by whites. They still make up about half of the population, but still get better jobs than Afro-Americans and Latinos, who therefore earn less.

“We can do it”

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(Photo: Roland Peters)

Half an hour’s drive from the Dollar General, several women stand on the expressway cheering every car that turns. The two Democratic Senate candidates are making a stop in Jonesboro, Clayton County this Thursday afternoon. A small stage is placed in front of the church entrance, some journalists are there and around two hundred people, almost all of them African American. It is purely a motivational event for January. Nearly 85 percent voted for Joe Biden in Clayton County, with a lead of around 80,000 votes. The Democrat won the entire state by around 13,000 votes ahead of Donald Trump. “Clayton County will save America,” reads a t-shirt.

But now the question is how much power the new president will have. A schoolgirl reads a poem that links the rebellion against slavery with the current election, local politicians cheer on the people, then Ossoff and Warnock hold polished election speeches. The distribution of tasks is clear: The dashing Ossoff criticizes the corruption in Washington and the senators, who are said to have made a lot of money on the stock market with insider knowledge about the corona measures. Warnock speaks in larger parables: of the self-empowerment of blacks and the course of history, which now needs to be changed. “Go to vote! Your ancestors couldn’t, but you!” Reads on some signs in the area.

She is about better health insurance and higher wages, says visitor Trina Corbitt, who otherwise rarely leaves the house because of the pandemic. “It’s almost impossible to live on $ 7.25,” explains the 54-year-old behind her mouth and nose protection. The USA would be considered one of the richest countries in the world: “We can do it,” she says of Ossoff and Warnock’s election chances.

Trina Corbitt worked for a temporary employment agency before the pandemic. Then she brought her mother in need and quit the job because she was afraid of bringing the virus into the home. The mother is 79 years old, has dialysis three times a week, but was only insured through her husband. Since he passed away, the insurance company has only paid a flat rate of $ 244 per month. Far too little to cover all costs. “You have to win the majority in the Senate and tackle these problems,” says Trina Corbitt: “This is groundbreaking.”

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