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Poverty continues to weigh on my mind as I, perhaps naively, think Northwest Arkansas can do better.

We regularly see nonprofit organizations hard at work to help meet the needs of families in poverty and our school districts end up paying a lot of attention to the effects of poverty in their efforts to help kids learn. But my mind continually drifts back to what's almost too simple: employees aren't being paid enough.

Oh, I know all that stuff about people being paid what the market demands. But Northwest Arkansas has a low unemployment rate -- the lowest among peer communities measured annually by the private Northwest Arkansas Council -- while annual average wages in the region continue to be the lowest among those peer communities.

Only one peer region, according to the council, had a higher poverty rate than Northwest Arkansas. Yes, we're doing significantly better than the rest of the state, but with all our region has to offer, shouldn't that be a given?

In February, the Labor Department reported wages nationally were rising at their fastest pace in eight years after a long period of relative stagnation. Let's hope that's translating into gains for Northwest Arkansas, too.

Some companies have given raises as a result of the federal tax cuts; others have given bonuses, which are welcome one-time boosts to an employee's bottom line but have no lasting and dependable effect on people's capacity to impact their lives economically.

Population growth in and of itself isn't a sign our region is doing well. Naturally, it helps when we attract new folks who take good-paying jobs and grow our economy. It's even better when we can employ someone who's already here at a higher rate of pay.

But our region isn't improving when the workers flowing in will contribute to the poverty rate and create more demand for food banks and other social services. That's not a slam on those people looking for work or earning low wages, for poverty in Northwest Arkansas may still be a better situation than where they came from. Still, that's a situation for which their place of origination ought to be ashamed more than one for which our region ought to be proud.

No, it's more of an observation that employers do not always concern themselves with whether the wage they're paying gives their employees a path out of poverty. Indeed, while employers almost always parrot the human resources department line that their employees are their best asset, the way it generally works is positions are filled for as low a wage as the company feels it can legitimately get away with, whether economically or morally.

That leaves nearly a quarter of children in Benton and Washington counties living in poverty or extremely low-income circumstances.

No, we're not the Arkansas Delta, where poverty is starkly more widespread. But can we really assert Northwest Arkansas is succeeding when so many of its working residents constantly have to worry about basic needs like roofs over their heads, food on their tables and clothes on their backs?

Arkansas policies need to be focused strongly on education, for knowledge is a certain path toward better economic lives. At every turn, we should encourage strong marriages, as two-parent households historically have a better chance to stay out of poverty's clutches. Communities need to promote housing that is reachable by people making average wages or less, not just the six-figure homes a lot of builders are drawn toward. And companies need to evaluate their wage scales not just on a bottom-line basis, but on a moral one.

Higher wages ought to be a goal of every city council, quorum court, regional interest group and state economic development leaders. Make higher wages a key part of any economic development plan. Political leaders should discuss that with corporate leaders. If a new employer is relying on sub-par wages, don't celebrate those jobs as an economic victory.

Poverty to a degree will always be with us, but Northwest Arkansas can do better.

Commentary on 03/19/2018

Print Headline: Poor, poor Northwest Arkansas

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