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The 50-100 Pay Gap

“Why Can’t We Make This Work?”

How state policies hurt workers and worsen income inequality.




As Erica and Ryan Sheade try to contribute to society and support their family of five, their lives have gotten more hectic.

In addition to their own social work practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, where they help struggling community members cope with their problems, the couple is raising three kids and jetting back and forth to dance classes, theater rehearsals and school.

Co-published by Fast Company

Parenting and running a family business in their field are both challenging enough, but the Sheades live in one of the many states where it is hard for a family to make ends meet, save money to put children through college and prepare for their eventual retirement.

Their jobs as social workers have only gotten more demanding in the last decade: In addition to incomes in the field that have remained stagnant and that lag behind their colleagues in most other states, Arizona cut social service budgets after the 2008 financial crisis, adding to the burden on underpaid and overworked social workers.

The Sheades’ struggles are emblematic of the larger income inequality crisis playing out across the country. Many working-class and middle-class Americans have seen their buying power fall and insecurity increase as wages stagnate and even decline in recent decades while the cost of living — especially housing — keeps spiraling upward.

This crisis has been exacerbated in a historically conservative state like Arizona by cuts to funding for public education, as well as by reduced enforcement of labor standards, which has caused more pain for those Arizonans already struggling.

Ryan strongly criticizes the priorities of their state’s elected officials and political establishment, saying that they are in direct opposition to the work the Sheades conduct as social workers — being the “voice for the voiceless,” as Ryan puts it.

The Great Recession was a “catalyst” for many of the forces contributing to social workers’ moribund incomes, says Matt Grodsky, the director of public affairs at Matters of State Strategies, a political consulting firm. The crash prompted state lawmakers to cut billions of dollars from public programs over the next decade, including education and state-run agency budgets. The state Department of Economic Security, which included Child Protective Services up until 2014, lost nearly one-third of its budget in the wake of the recession, spurring caseworker and social worker layoffs, the inability to compensate workers for overtime, skyrocketing caseloads and a reduction in services available to Arizona’s neediest families.

Ryan strongly criticizes the priorities of their state’s elected officials and political establishment, saying that they are in direct opposition to the work the Sheades conduct as social workers — being the “voice for the voiceless.”

Grodsky said the state’s annual investment in public education is more than $1 billion lower than it was before the onset of the Great Recession. Arizona’s unemployment levels peaked at around 11% at the end of 2009. The state, which was unable to recover pre-recession employment levels until the end of 2015, was left with one of the worst budget deficits in the country following the crisis. The recession’s impact was felt by state governments across the nation, with 43 states facing deficits in the middle of a budget cycle and, overall, shortfalls totaling more than $500 billion from 2009 to 2012.

Hundreds of thousands of workers in Arizona make the minimum wage or near it, exerting a downward effect on wages overall that impacts social workers. And there has been strong political opposition to raising the minimum wage in the state.

“Whether it’s from not backing the policy in the statehouse and senate chambers or challenging voter-approved minimum wage increase measures through the legal system, the common-sense policy of gradually raising wages has faced numerous obstacles over the years — most of it coming from Republicans and right-leaning organizations.”

Despite those obstacles, the minimum wage has steadily increased over the last two decades. In 2006, Arizona voters passed Proposition 202 and the Raise the Arizona Minimum Wage for Working Arizonans Act, which granted municipalities the right to increase local wages from their baselines, although then-state representative and current Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was notably silent on this fight. Then, in 2013, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2280, which allowed the “regulation of employee benefits, including compensation,” in essence banning cities from increasing minimum wages across the state. After a lengthy legal process, the state found that the bill violated the Arizona Voter Protection Act.

Another bill, approved by Gov. Ducey, that was designed to preempt local governments from requiring employers to provide benefits and paid sick time, severance and pensions, was also found to be in violation of state law.

The stalling of minimum wage hikes can hit the communities served by social workers especially hard, considering they can’t keep pace with the rising cost of living — namely, housing costs and healthcare-related expenses.
In 2016, after years of delaying tactics by politicians and others, Arizona voters passed Proposition 206, which mandated hikes in the minimum wage in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Public health initiatives have suffered from economic downturns too, hitting publicly and privately employed social workers in the health care system. During the recession, the state legislature cut insurance reimbursement rates by 15%, and it has since restored only half of those rates.

In addition, the Affordable Care Act, which contains provisions that benefit social workers and provides new funding for the field, has been consistently under attack by some of the state’s more prominent officials. Attorney General Mark Brnovich is currently trying to convince the courts to kill the comprehensive health care reform law. Sen. Sinema was one of four Democrats who introduced a Republican-sponsored bill in 2013 that would allow insurance companies to continue offering plans that didn’t meet the ACA’s new standards. And when Republican former Gov. Jan Brewer worked across party lines with Democrats to expand Medicaid, the Goldwater Institute, representing Republican lawmakers , filed a lawsuit to challenge the expansion. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that the lawsuit could proceed in 2014 but ultimately rejected the challenge three years later.

“Sometimes, I just feel like…why? Why can’t we make this work? If we have all this education and we are doing good in the world, it’s gonna come around, right?” Ryan wonders.

In decades to come, that policy agenda may eventually shift in Arizona as part of the state’s electoral realignment, which has turned a distinct shade of purple in recent political races, electing Joe Biden and having two Democratic senators for the first time in nearly 70 years. At the same time, Arizonans elected in 2020 one of their most conservative legislatures in recent decades.

Erica and Ryan continue to fight for a better future for social workers in the state of Arizona. In 2017, they started the Arizona Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training to train therapists in a safe environment, and Erica runs a group called G.E.M.S. (Girls Empowered, Motivated and Strong) focused on improving self-esteem and self-confidence for girls ages 8-18.

Their own children even started an apparel company to destigmatize mental health called Fight, Confront and Knock Out the Stigma (cleverly, FCK the Stigma).

Together, they’re doing what they can to address the needs of their current and future clients. They’re just not sure it’s enough.

“Sometimes, I just feel like…why? Why can’t we make this work? If we have all this education, we’re doing this great stuff, and we are doing good in the world, it’s gonna come around, right?” Ryan wonders.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this three-part series.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

A previous version of this article did not clarify that the Arizona Department of Economic Security no longer oversees Child Protective Services. The agency stopped managing CPS in 2014, when it became a stand-alone agency known as the Department of Child Safety (DCS).


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