How raising the minimum wage helps get people work their way off public assistance | Opinion

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups rallies on the Pa. Capitol steps to call for better funding for public schools, a higher minimum wage, and other items in the 2019 state budget. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

By Teresa Miller

Some days, parenting my toddler is harder work than my job leading the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

My three-year-old daughter is endlessly curious, spunky and somehow never lacking in energy. She is my greatest joy, and yet a typical kid in every way.

I think any parent would understand my contradicting feelings of relief and reluctance of leaving her five days each week in the care of teachers and staff at her child care center.

I get to go to work each day confident that my daughter will be learning how to share and count in the care of people who are so committed to early childhood education and developing my daughter’s mind and creativity that I have no room left on my refrigerator for her art.

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I trust them because they are trained and experienced professionals who are passionate about shaping young minds. I trust them because they adhere to rigorous education, training and health and safety standards for Pennsylvania child care programs. I trust them because they allow my husband and me to go to work knowing that our daughter is learning and growing in a loving, safe environment.

But they are not paid nearly what they deserve. Frankly, many of them earn poverty wages.

A 2018 study from the University of California Berkeley found that the median wage for child care workers is $9.71 despite many of these workers having some level of post-secondary education. Because of these low wages, 50 percent of child care workers receive some form of public assistance.

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Pennsylvania has fallen asleep at the wheel when it comes to protecting low-income workers from slipping into a cycle of poverty. In the end, the taxes that we all pay are being used to subsidize those poverty wages through various government programs for workers.

While other states – including all that border Pennsylvania – have increased their minimum wages in recent years, Pennsylvanians continues to try to stay afloat at $7.25, the lowest allowed by federal law.

A single adult working full time at the minimum wage earns just over $15,000 per year – before taxes. That’s below the Federal Poverty Threshold. Pennsylvania should not be a place where someone working full time lives in poverty.

We have created a system that traps people into dependence on public assistance, and then shames them for circumstances beyond their control. People may try to get ahead, but low wages can make that impossible.

It’s time that we start closing that gap.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $12 per hour on July 1 and $15 per hour by 2025 – a pay raise that would boost incomes for 2 million Pennsylvania workers.

With a more reasonable wage, fewer low-income workers will need to rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance programs. For example, raising the minimum wage would allow 70,000 adults to work their way off Medicaid, saving Pennsylvania taxpayers more than $150 million and helping people toward self-sufficiency.

In a commonwealth that values its children and celebrates the dignity of work, it is outrageous that so many hardworking people – particularly those in the caregiving professions – are unable to make ends meet for their own families.

Throughout Pennsylvania, the 2 million workers earning less than $15 an hour are doing the jobs that keep our economy going.  These are often physically demanding jobs that require people to work nights and weekends for low wages.  An astonishing 89 percent of those workers are over age 20 and more than 6 in 10 are women.

These are people that we know and too often they are struggling to afford food and rent. It’s time to reward hard work for 2 million people. It’s time to save tax dollars by enabling people to work their way off public benefits.

We can’t delay any longer to modernize the wage floor. Already 29 other states have a higher minimum wage. It’s time for Pennsylvania to catch up. It’s time to raise the wage.

Teresa Miller is the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. She writes from Harrisburg. 

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