Commentary

It’s time to give Pa. a raise: Lawmakers, Wolf should not wait to increase the minimum wage | Opinion

Governor Tom Wolf speaks about efforts to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage. Governor Tom Wolf is building on his commitment to help hardworking Pennsylvanians. Today, the governor joined legislators and workers to renew his call to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $12 an hour with a pathway to $15. Later this week, the governor’s plan to extend overtime pay eligibility to 82,000 more workers will be considered by the state’s rule-making board. Harrisburg, PA – January 28, 2019

By Joan Maya Mazelis

The federal minimum wage was last raised on July 24, 2009. Meanwhile, consumer prices rose last month at their fastest rate since 2008—before the last minimum wage increase—and this is sure to erode purchasing power without an increase in wages.

An increase in the minimum wage is long overdue. Raises over time have been too few, too infrequent, and have notoriously failed to keep up with inflation. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, as it has been for nearly 12 years. It’s now worth less than it was in 1956, 65 years ago. It’s lost a third of its value since 1968.

I live in Philadelphia, and I work in Camden, N.J. – the twin cities of poverty. In recent years Philadelphia has been the poorest big city in the United States, with the highest rate of deep poverty, a term that refers to those living below less than half the poverty line. Long the poorest small city in America, Camden has recently earned the title of the poorest city in America.

While 30 states have set their own minimum wages at higher levels (including our neighbors Delaware, New Jersey, and New York), Pennsylvania’s remains at $7.25 per hour. It’s time our Legislature catches up.

An individual who works for $7.25 per hour for 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, and never takes a day off or misses a moment of work earns just $15,080 a year. This is not even enough to keep a family of two – one parent and one child – out of poverty.

How much should the minimum wage be? Some claim $15 per hour would be excessive when, ignoring inflation, they recall their own $6/hour jobs decades ago. Some believe that minimum wage workers are only teenagers with after-school jobs—but over half of minimum wage workers are 25 and older.

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What if we raise the minimum wage just enough to push a single parent with one child above poverty—say, to $8.50 per hour? Wouldn’t that be sufficient? Not really. The official poverty guideline hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and underestimates poverty, material hardship, and severe deprivation.

In my research interviewing and spending time with women and their families in Philadelphia, I learned that not only do people living in poverty struggle—whether they make minimum wage or are unemployed—but so do people who hover just above the poverty line.

Leslie, a 23-year-old mother of one child, had worked as a cashier at a drug store and soon moved into a pharmacy technician position. Leslie made enough above the minimum wage to be above the poverty line, but she still couldn’t afford to live on her own—she and her son lived with her parents.

Stagnating and declining values of wages coupled with an ever-increasing cost of living has also made housing instability more severe and more common all over the country in recent years.

Research by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition shows that there is nowhere in the country that rent for a two-bedroom apartment is affordable for a person making the minimum wage who works full-time, year-round.

Even a $15 per hour minimum wage would only bring a full-time year-round worker to an annual income of $31,200. But in Pennsylvania, an annual income of nearly $40,000 is what’s needed to afford to rent a two-bedroom home, a wage of $19.23 per hour.

At the existing minimum wage it would require a 106-hour workweek.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, expanded income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit are crucial, and the stimulus payments have been a lifeline. People needed that money to pay for fundamental living costs. Data from the Census show that especially among lower-income groups, people spent their stimulus payments on necessary items like food and housing.

People’s struggles to pay for fundamentals like housing have been made even more evident over the last 15 months.

As COVID-19 transmission rates fall, vaccinations climb, and many welcome a return to normalcy, let’s greet the decrease in unemployment and the rise in the Consumer Price Index with an increase in wages.

It’s long past time to break this 12-year streak of no increase in the federal minimum  wage. But Pennsylvania shouldn’t wait for Washington to fix this when our state can join dozens of others and set a higher minimum wage. 

Joan Maya Mazelis is an associate professor of sociology, and an affiliated scholar at the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden, and the author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor. Follow her @JoanieMazelis

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