Anna Wolfe | Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Photos by Eric Shelton

Carolyn Ward, 52, and Josef Drones, 26, are co-workers at the west Jackson Dollar General, bordering a neighborhood where nearly half of the people live in poverty.

Ward and Drones earn $8 and $8.50-an-hour, respectively, greeting shoppers, stocking goods and working the cash register. They’re two of Mississippi’s roughly 42,000 cashiers, the single most common job in the state, outnumbering teachers, police officers, registered nurses and the population of Meridian, the state’s 6th largest city.

The store on Fortification Street is one of 518 Dollar General locations in Mississippi, a poor, rural state where the small-box store has thrived by catering to shoppers with few options, including low-income and rural areas, with cheap necessities and individually packaged items.

“While the economy is doing very well, our core customer continues to struggle because, normally, her expenses outstripped her wage growth,” Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos told analysts on a conference call last August, CNN reported.

The hypothetical customer Vasos describes could just as easily be his employees like Ward and Drones, who find people like themselves the focal point of a national debate over the merits of raising the federal minimum wage to a living wage.

The argument in favor of lifting the wage floor is that giving people fatter paychecks can help lift them out of poverty while detractors warn that forcing employers to pay workers more will lead to job losses, pushing families deeper into poverty. This debate is particularly consequential in Mississippi, where more families live in poverty than any other state and a significant portion of all jobs are low-wage.

For example, Ward, a single mom who works part-time, raises her 10-year-old daughter on roughly $10,000 per year. Drones, who’s full-time, earns more than his coworker, about $1,500 a month, still not enough to move out of his mother’s house.

Minimum wage in Mississippi — which follows the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour — hasn’t budged in a decade. Meanwhile, 29 states have enacted higher minimums, ranging from $7.50 to $12.

“Mississippi, to me, is always so far behind — last on the totem pole,” Ward said.

Today, cashiers make up a greater portion of Mississippi’s workforce — about 37 out of every 1,000 workers — than any state in the country, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. They earn an average $19,620 annual salary, less than half the state’s median household income, which would put a single mom with two kids below the poverty line.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Left: Dollar General, located on West Capitol Street in Jackson, Miss. Right: An abandoned grocery story, Black’s Grocery, located on Officer Thomas Catchings, Sr. Drive. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Congressional efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, including a bill to more than double the wage to $15 by 2024, face an uphill battle with a Republican-majority Senate.

However unlikely, the proposal would benefit a greater percentage of workers in Mississippi, 42 percent, than any other state, according to a February report released by Oxfam, an international nonprofit working to solve poverty.

That’s assuming those low-wage workers don’t become unemployed as a result of the wage hike. Many economic studies have concluded that such a policy will result in job loss. Among them is a 2014 report by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office that concluded a $10.10 minimum wage proposal would eliminate a half-million workers nationwide.

Proponents of a minimum wage increase argue any job losses do not negate the overall economic impact of income boosts for the remaining workers and their families, some of whom would rise above the poverty line as a result.

Conflicting economic theories about the minimum wage make it one of the most hotly contested national policy debates, although the conversation is stifled in Mississippi, one of only five states that has never enacted its own minimum wage.

Though she makes slightly above minimum wage, Ward, a public assistance recipient, would remain under the federal poverty line even if she moved into a full-time position.

“This is not build a family, live kinda OK job,” Drones said.

Opponents of a wage increase often argue jobs paying at or near minimum wage are held by teenagers and aren’t designed to support a family. Drones agreed that his pay would be more appropriate for a high school student.

“This is not balance-a-check-book-off-this-check type of job. This is like high school. ‘I need a car. I’m trying to buy my own tuxedo for prom,’ then work at Dollar General,” he said.

But that’s not the reality of who’s working there. Many work in the daytime when most teenagers are in school. “These jobs don’t exist for teens,” Drones said. “These are grown people with grown people bills.”

Less than one-third of cashiers in Mississippi are teenagers, according to data from Current Population Survey, a joint survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.* They are also overwhelmingly women, 86 percent, and more than one-fourth are over 30 years old.

“There will always be low-wage, low skilled jobs and odds are good there will always be people who do those jobs for their entire lives,” Oxfam spokesperson Mary Babic said. “Those are not bad jobs or bad workers. Those are people doing vital tasks and we just need to reward them appropriately.”

Ward spent the first two decades of her adult life raising two daughters and tending to her family’s home while her husband pursued his career. Starting as a personal care aid, he now runs his own personal care business.

“He wanted me to just raise the kids and that’s what I did,” Ward said. “He was able to take care of everything.”

Ward eventually made the difficult decision to divorce, knowing at the time she was sacrificing a comfortable life. She’d only ever worked odd jobs or bagging at the local grocery store to make a few extra dollars, not to support a home.

She found relatively stable employment as a direct care worker at the Mississippi State Hospital, but she took leave three times over the years due to stress from the job, which put her in contact with sometimes erratic patients and paid her just over $7 an hour. After six years on the job, Ward said, an upset patient charged her. She pushed him away, a breach of protocol that resulted in her firing.

Ward had a 1-year-old, her third daughter, at home.

Until last year when she got the Dollar General job, Ward survived off a patchwork of unemployment benefits, government assistance, odd jobs and family support.

“This is not what I wanted to do. This wasn’t my future. When I was married, I thought I was going to be married for the rest of my life,” Ward said.

Last year, Ward sought help from the Hinds County Human Resource Agency, the local community action agency which receives federal funds to help lift people out of poverty. To assist in her job search, the agency sent Ward to the local unemployment office, which is a self-guided center that offers computer access to job seekers.

Access Training, a local job training agency, accepted Ward to its nursing assistant program in June, through which she could have renewed her certification, but around the time she was to begin the six-week course, Dollar General accepted her job application. She chose the immediate income the cashier position offered.

“I just thank God I was able to get some sort of job because, like I said, my avenues and revenues was few and none,” she said.

Working as a nursing assistant would not have provided a living wage: The average aide in Mississippi makes $10.81 an hour.

Since the last federal wage hike in 2009, cost of living has increased, so while pay has remained relatively stagnant, the value of the worker’s dollar has also fallen by about 16 cents. The minimum wage of $7.25 today is worth $6.07 in 2009 dollars.

“It means these workers are actually being paid less and less every year,” Babic said.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

An abandoned service station is seen in the 2600 block of Livingston Road in West Jackson, Thursday, May 2, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

From 1996 to 2001, the minimum wage of $4.75 to $5.15 had more buying power than today’s minimum wage. The highest value minimum wage in modern history was $1.60-an-hour in 1968, which translates today to $11.89, a little more than the living wage for a single person in Jackson, according to the MIT living wage calculator. The living wage for a single mom with one child is $21.80-an-hour — and that’s working full-time.

Ward has limited herself to working during her daughter’s school hours. Even if she could somehow afford child care, Ward said, “I’m not going to work two jobs and just subject my baby to letting anybody keep her.”

Working four days a week at Dollar General, Ward takes home about $700 a month. She also receives $90 in food assistance from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and $280 in child support from her youngest daughter’s father, which pays for school clothes, supplies or sports gear. With this income, she pays her light, gas, water, internet and cable bills and buys at least $50 in gasoline and $200 in food every month. She pays for hair appointments for her 10-year-old daughter but Ward wears her own natural hair, subtly graying at the roots, in a slick back pony tail.

“I budget my money to the T,” Ward said.

She said there’s no room for savings.

Ward receives a roughly $600 housing voucher from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that pays rent on a clean, red brick ranch-style south Jackson home. Without the voucher Ward would be nearly $100 in the hole every month, not accounting for any additional monthly expenses.

“They ask about, ‘Why are people still on welfare benefits?’ and stuff like that,” she said. “Now, I can only say for myself, I can’t speak for others because some are not working, but I work. I stay on … housing authority (assistance) because I feel like I will be homeless if I didn’t. It’s like you’re stagnated.”

Nearly 400 people have been on the wait-list for Jackson Housing Authority’s voucher program for over a decade, said Allison Cox, Jackson Housing Authority deputy director. Even more folks have applications pending through the regional housing authority. The office in Jackson, where over a fourth of people live in poverty, hasn’t been able to take applications since 2008.

“When you’re trying to get off (housing assistance), there’s nothing you can do,” Ward said. “Where I’m living at now, they want me to buy my house. I said I couldn’t do it because if I did I’d be in foreclosure in the next three months with what I’m making right now.”

Dollar General boasts competitive wages and benefits, training and development and opportunity for career growth for employees in its stores, distribution centers and the Store Support Center.

A Dollar General spokesperson said in an email that part-time sales associates can be promoted to lead sales associate within six months and to assistant store manager within a year. The statement also said roughly 10,000 Dollar General current store managers were promoted within the company. “We believe the opportunity to build a long-term career at Dollar General is the most important currency we have to attract and retain talent,” the spokesperson said.

In March, the franchise announced plans to open 975 new stores this year, including in Mississippi.

The Raise the Wage Act of 2019 introduced by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024 and create standards so that future minimum wage changes match trends in median worker pay nationally.

Oxfam estimates that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would result in pay increases for nearly half a million Mississippi workers, 396,000 of which Oxfam estimates will still earn under $15-an-hour in 2024 if the wage is not increased. The Oxfam report used data supplied from the Economic Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think-tank with labor union backing, and its Minimum Wage Simulation Model based on data from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and Congressional Budget Office.

The study estimated that impacted workers represent nearly half of working mothers in the state and 60 percent of Mississippi’s single-parent families. These lower-wage workers are also raising 30 percent of all Mississippi children.

Oxfam also found that states represented in the Senate by two Republicans, such as Mississippi, have a higher percentage of constituents who would directly benefit from a minimum wage hike.

“It leaves us scratching our heads. Why are they resistant to passing a raise?” Babic said.

Mississippi’s only congressional Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson, supports a congressional minimum wage hike. “American workers have waited too long for a raise. The cost of living has increased exponentially but workers’ pay has not,” said Thompson’s spokesperson Ty James.

On the other side, Employment Policies Institute, run by a PR firm that also represents the restaurant industry, has deployed a robust campaign against increasing the minimum wage using research showing the increase will shutter employers.

“It’s killer for small businesses,” said Ron Aldridge, a lobbyist and Mississippi state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. “If you do a good job, you won’t stay there (at the minimum wage) for long.”

State economist Darrin Webb cited economic theory that says when the price of something rises, such as labor, the demand decreases, which means a wage hike will result in reduced employment. Studies supporting a minimum wage increase, Webb said in an email, “make no sense to me from an economic theory perspective.”

Mississippi’s Republican representatives in Congress have also not expressed support for the federal wage increase.

U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith “believes state and local leaders are best suited to determine wage policies that are most beneficial for their citizens and businesses. Should the Senate decide to address the minimum wage issue, careful consideration must be given to how such legislation would affect small businesses and rural areas,” said Chris Callegos, a spokesperson for Hyde-Smith, the only Republican member of the state’s Washington delegation to respond to Mississippi Today’s requests for comment.

Another minimum wage hike proposal, which could be more likely to garner Republican support, would set a regional minimum wage based on cost of living. Each region would be assigned a minimum wage that translates to between $10 and $12 in purchasing power based on average-cost cities. In the country’s lowest cost places, such as Mississippi, the minimum wage would rise to $9.80, which translates to $11.88 in purchasing power in the Jackson-metro.

Wages for about 27,000 Mississippi state employees and over 31,000 public teachers — who earned an average salary of nearly $38,000 and $45,000, respectively — dominated discussion during the 2019 legislative session. Most received modest raises of three percent or $1,500 a year.

But nine bills introduced by Democrats in the Legislature to address private sector wages, including one to allow citizens to vote on whether to raise the state minimum wage, died in committee without debate. Republican Reps. Donnie Bell and Mark Baker chair the committees where most of the bills were double-referred, Workforce Development and Judiciary A.

Baker, a candidate for attorney general, said his committee did not receive any of the bills because they did not come out of the first assigned committee chaired by Bell, who did not return calls to Mississippi Today.

Had they arrived at his committee, Baker said he would have killed the bills because raising the minimum wage would reduce jobs and make the state less competitive. He also said cost of living increases as a result would offset any benefit to the workers.

“Employers are the ones who can determine how to compensate employees. If employees are not being paid commensurate with their value, they will find opportunities elsewhere,” Baker said. “If the business pays workers above their value, they lose money.”

Former state economist Pete Walley said a minimum wage mandate disrupts the free market, which guides wages based on productivity and profit. But the market is not foolproof.

“Sometimes the market gets distorted. In Mississippi, I think we see a distorted market in the sense that we have a large chunk of Mississippians with little skills,” Walley said. “Where are jobs that require little skills? In today’s world, very few.”

At $15 an hour in her current schedule, Ward would earn roughly $1,250 a month in take home pay. Considering Mississippi Today’s estimated reductions in public assistance, the bump would give her just over $300 in additional monthly income.

“In this situation, would it (raising the minimum wage) improve her quality of life? Yes,” Cox said. “Is it going to move her out of poverty? I don’t see that.”

Ward cites one main financial goal she believes she’d accomplish with a higher income: home ownership. “That’s the American dream,” she said.

“We want more for ourselves and our families than just what we’re getting and what we’re doing. We want to make it too. We really do,” she added.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

A man pushes a cart of recyclable items to Tri-Miss Recycling near the intersection of West Woodrow Wilson Avenue and Livingston Road in West Jackson, Miss. Thursday. May 2, 2019. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

If she were able to secure a stable, well paying job, Ward said she has already thought about specific ways to manage the larger income, such as paying more than her house note every month to build equity in her home more quickly. Her search through the unemployment office did not yield this kind of opportunity.

Mississippi’s workforce initiative, called Mississippi Works, is underpinned by a search engine where employers in the state can post job listings. In May, the website stored around 40,000 open positions in 15,127 different job postings (the Department of Employment Security, which runs the search engine, explained that some postings have multiple openings). The number of open positions is the figure state leaders use to boast job growth — and the philosophy that anyone who wants a job can get one — in Mississippi.

At least 1,850 of those job postings, or over 12 percent, are for jobs at Dollar General, Mississippi Today discovered by manually counting the listings on the search engine. Another 10 percent of the postings are made up of positions at McDonald’s, 719, Pizza Hut, 544, and Dominos, 230.

The site lists 15 job postings from Walmart, which recently hiked its starting pay to $11 an hour and is the largest private employer in Mississippi and 21 other states, according to 24/7 Wall St.

Companies are replacing these cashier jobs, too, with automated checkout machines.

“The only place that I know that’s really, actually just doing good that I know of is Nissan,” Ward said. “But the hours they have, I can’t do it because of my daughter.”

The Nissan plant in Canton just north of Jackson opened in 2003 and employs roughly 6,000 people. Mississippi Works job postings for Nissan production line positions show they pay between $13.46 and $14.21-an-hour. The plant laid off more than 380 contract workers in March.

Mississippi’s strategy has been to purchase better paying jobs through incentives for businesses, such as Nissan, to locate within the state, then train Mississippians for those jobs. “That’s a valid strategy, it’s just, how long can we do it and how many jobs can we buy?” Walley said.

Drones’ $8.50-an-hour pay is more than $3 under a living wage for a single person with no kids in Jackson. To put his wage into perspective, he would need to work 600 years to make as much as Vasos, the Dollar General CEO, made in 2018. Vasos pulled $10.6 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The market-rate rent of $736 for a one-bedroom apartment in Jackson would gobble up over half Drones’ roughly $1,200 monthly take-home pay, so he lives with his mom in the West Jackson community near the store were he works.

Complicating matters, officials suspended Drones’ driver’s license several years ago after he had racked up unpaid traffic tickets when he was 19.

He plans to work at Dollar General long enough to save enough money to pay off his court debts, thousands of dollars resulting from missing court dates. Then, he can renew his driver’s license and enroll in a commercial driver’s license program. He hopes a career in trucking will provide decent income and, even more appealing, a chance to travel and leave Mississippi.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For Americav

Josef Drones, a full-time Dollar General employee, stocks shelves of processed food items in a store in West Jackson. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Drones was a senior in high school when an adult first asked him what he’d like to do for a living.

“My mom told me if you love what you do, it’s like you never work a day in your life. But the problem is I don’t know what I love,” Drones said. “I still need to make money but I need to get out of Jackson, so it kind of led me to truck driving.”

The average heavy truck driver in Mississippi earns $41,900.

Options for Ward, on the other hand, are limited. After losing her job at the state hospital, Ward drew all of her unemployment, which ends after 26 weeks, and drained the state pension she had earned.

Ward said she can’t contemplate retirement now. Every morning, she focuses on getting up, getting her daughter ready for school and going to work.

“I know if I dwell on it so much, that will be a depressing state for me. I can’t even bare to just get into that mode, about what I coulda, woulda, shoulda. I just keep on going,” Ward said.

With a hollow laugh, Ward said winning the lottery would be her best shot at finding financial security at this stage in her life.

Mississippi’s very first lottery, passed by the Legislature last August, will roll out in coming months.

Ward wasn’t exactly being tongue-in-cheek. When the game arrives to convenience stores in Jackson, she plans to play. She said she’ll collect whatever change she can to buy tickets.

“That’s just wishful thinking,” Ward said.

*The Current Population Survey is the nation’s primary source for statistics about the labor force. Mississippi Today pulled the data using the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) at Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota.

Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.