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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We're at Los Angeles International Airport, LAX, continuing our series about different routes to getting out of poverty. Our series grew out of the national conversation that flourished briefly after Hurricane Katrina sent images of the poor into American homes.

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning.

Unidentified Woman #2: Hi.

Unidentified Woman: #1: Anything to snack on for you?

MONTAGNE: A few years ago, many of the salespeople at this airport would have been known as the working poor. They were paid minimum wage, rarely enough to afford the souvenirs and small luxuries they sell at the airport.

Unidentified Woman#3: Could I get one of the brownies too, please?

Unidentified Woman #4: And I wanted a caramel frappachino, please.

MONTAGNE: Nearly a decade ago, Los Angeles became one of the first cities in the country to pass what's known as a living wage law. It raised pay and benefits for those who work for the city or for businesses that contract with it. Now, entry level jobs at the airport start at $9 or $10 an hour.

Unidentified Woman #5: $8.15 is your change.

Unidentified Man: Okay, that will be...

Unidentified Woman #6: $.81, please.

Unidentified Woman #7: $4.32

Unidentified Man #2: $4.28.

Unidentified Woman #8: $7.50 is your change. Have a nice day.

MONTAGNE: We wanted to find out if the lives of these workers changed after several years of higher wages. We begin with a woman who operates wheelchairs at LAX. Her name is Maria Moscaida(ph).

Can you remember the day, would this have been six years ago, that you got that first check that had the extra $200?

Ms. MARIA MOSCAIDA (Employee, Los Angeles International Airport): Yes, $200.

MONTAGNE: Can you remember pulling it out and looking at it?

Ms. MOSCAIDA: Yes, I remember. We were so nervous, everybody. We were talking over there about maybe it doesn't count on this check. And then when we went to pick up the check and we opened, everybody was like, Wow! Very happy and excited and crazy, crazy day that day we got the raise.

MONTAGNE: On this evening, the Moscaida family is gathered for a Sunday meal in their four bedroom home a few miles from the airport. It's big enough for Maria and her husband, plus three sons, two daughters-in-law and a baby grandson. The house sparkles. The furniture highly polished. An oil painting of flowers gleams on the wall. The family owns this house because they qualified for a loan after Maria's wages went up. Before that, she says...

Ms. MOSCAIDA: Even in my mind, I didn't have that thinking about I want a house. I'm going to be the owner of a house. No, because I knew I couldn't afford. And then this is like a miracle for me.

MONTAGNE: Dozens of cities and towns across the country and some states have raised hourly wages above the federal minimum. Many others are considering it. That movement has been driven by a simple and controversial idea: to bring working people out of poverty, pay them more.

Mr. DAVID NEWMARC(ph) (Economist): All of these policies, as many other policies, create both winners and losers.

MONTAGNE: David Newmarc, an economist, who studied the claim on both sides.

Mr. NEWMARC: The basic argument that is always the first one that comes up against living wages is that they'll reduce employment. Firms uses low cost labor. When you make that more expensive, they're going to tend to find other ways to do things. So a living wage or a minimum wage is passed; if you keep your job and your hours are unchanged, you're obviously better off. But if your hours are reduced or you lose your job, you're worse off.

MONTAGNE: And there's this, a worker could discover that a higher paycheck means losing other forms of support: Medicaid, special tax breaks, food stamps.

Mr. NEWMARC: I raise this point frequently with advocates of living wages, that, you know, your earned income goes up, but you may lose 70 percent or 80 percent of that in terms of other government programs, and many of them will say, well, that's okay. We think it's better that people bring home the paycheck, the larger paycheck, than that they bring home a smaller paycheck and are getting what they might call handouts from the government. It's a moral argument perhaps. Better to earn it than to be given it.

Ms. AIDA GURGIS(ph): (Employee, Los Angeles International Airport): Every time I get some money I get something for the house. I have a lot of plates.

MONTAGNE: We're now in the kitchen of Aida Gurgis, who also works at the airport selling chocolates at a kiosk. Today, she is showing off the kitchenware she has accumulated in the six years since she began earning a higher wage.

Ms. GURGIS: I bought these pots and pans. It's an expensive one, $20.00.

MONTAGNE: Once Aida Gurgis lived comfortably. Then she divorced. Her ex-husband went home to Egypt, and she was left to raise three children on welfare. Now, with the higher wage at her airport job, Aida Gurgis is off government support and out of debt.

Ms. GURGIS: I like this blanket. It was $15.00. I have money in my pocket.

MONTAGNE: With a bit of help from her now college-aged daughter, Maryanne(ph), Aida can afford the basics: rent, food, bus fare, money to spend, but to save?

Ms. GURGIS: Don't say save. Here in California no way to save. Everybody laughs. I say, you know how much I have in the bank? $.81. And everybody starts laughing.

MONTAGNE: So Aida Gurgis can't begin to think of buying a house or feel fully rested in the one she has. As a measure and a metaphor of how she still lacks a cushion, Aida gets into an argument with Maryanne about buying a good mattress for her bad back.

Ms. MARYANNE GURGESS: See, my mother's stubborn. I don't know if she doesn't want me to spend the money or...

Ms. AIDA GURGESS: I don't want you to spend the money. I said don't buy nothing. She said, I'm going to buy mattress. I said you need it for book or you need it for gas. Something happen to you, you don't know. I don't want you broke. She gives me more stress. I don't want stress.

Ms. MARYANNE GURGESS: She worries about me, but I can take care of myself.

MONTAGNE: Aida Gurgess makes $11.33 an hour--enough, it turns out, to feel proud and precarious at the same time.

For another worker we met, a living wage buys something else: a measure of choice.

Mr. MOSES FIGEROA(ph): You just want to come in.

MONTAGNE: Sure.

Mr. FIGEROA: And you can sit there, right here. This is home.

MONTAGNE: Moses Figeroa once struggled to support his small family on $7.00 an hour.

Mr. FIGEROA: You guys want to have a seat, go ahead.

MONTAGNE: He now earns nearly twice that, managing a sandwich stand at L.A.'s Convention Center.

Mr. FIGEROA: I mean this room is so small, you just open the door and plop! You hit the wall, you know?

MONTAGNE: And this room is all there is. There's no kitchen. What passes for a bathroom is a toilet sitting all by itself near the front door.

Mr. FIGEROA: I've got a little TV, and the guy that used to live here before left the couch.

MONTAGNE: Moses is now divorced. After paying child support and his $325.00 a month rent he has money left over, disposable income he chooses to spend on the occasional night out, membership in a health club where he showers, and one big luxury: he holds out his arms to display a cascade of tattoos.

Mr. FIGEROA: Well, what this one is, right here? This one, you ever go to church where you see stained glass mirror? Well that's what this is.

MONTAGNE: Body art, costing hundreds of dollars: a velvety blue Madonna, a skull on stained glass.

Mr. FIGEROA: And this is a work in progress. Actually, I don't know if you can see it right here, it's my ex-wife's name. N-D.

MONTAGNE: Have you sort of blurred it out with the colors? To get rid of it because she's your ex-wife?

Mr. FIGEROA: Yeah, of course. Either that or chop off my arm! Yeah, I like tattoos. That's like my fun money to throw away.

MONTAGNE: Are you putting any money away for, say, your daughter's college?

Mr. FIGEROA: That I haven't thought about.

MONTAGNE: She's six?

Mr. FIGEROA: She's five. So no, I haven't thought about that. But I should start doing it now, because before I know it she's going to be, what, 18?

MONTAGNE: You know, people identify themselves, they do these studies all the time, people identify themselves as poor, working class, middle class, upper-middle class. Right now, where do you see yourself in that sense?

Mr. FIGEROA: Wow. Kind of like a rich poor.

MONTAGNE: Rich poor?

Mr. FIGEROA: Yeah. I got this place, you know, it's not the greatest place. But it's still mine. And I have my job, and I have people that respect me at work. It's like, yeah, I'm, yeah, rich poor.

MONTAGNE: With that phrase, Moses Figeroa may have just named the economic category somewhere between working poor and middle class. But the experts who've studies this tell us that depending on where you live, whether you're married or healthy or ambitious, making a few extra dollars an hour can add up to almost anything. You can buy a house or just make rent, forego a new mattress, or splurge on a fancy tattoo.

You can get a little ahead, or just not fall behind.

Next in our series, can you save your way out of poverty?

Unidentified Man: If we could put $62.50 per month away, they would match it dollar for dollar. It was kind of like a poor man's 401K.

To hear earlier stories in our series, go to npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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