Last week the Maine Legislature passed a minimum wage increase from six dollars and fifty cents an hour to seven dollars over the next two years. This increase will do little to alleviate suffering Maine workers. The debate over the increase existed predictably between most Democrats, who argued in favor of this meager increase that amounts to an additional ten dollars a week and Republicans who argued that an increase would be followed by job losses. With the debate existing so narrowly between these two poles how we can make significant progress improving wages in Maine? Too few voices were calling for a living wage.
The living wage is the wage a full-time worker needs to earn to support a family above the federal poverty line matched to the cost of living in their town. Workers in Portland with its higher cost of living would make more than those in Calais. If the federal minimum wage had kept pace with the cost of living since 1968, it would be at approximately $9.00 today which is closer to what is now refered to as a “living wage.”
If you are having a hard time getting by, you are not alone. Half of us in Maine are now earning less than livable wages. Some working families skip a meal and some Mainers working full time jobs live in homeless shelters, while many others are only one check away from the same fate.
Don’t we all agree that working a full-time job should be the best way to keep people out of poverty? So, then why has it become acceptable that Mainers who work so hard have to also rely on multiple jobs, charity and services to get by? Our upside-down sense of righteousness today seems to suggest that hard working Maine people who can’t make ends meet are somehow the ones who are immoral and deserve their misfortune but it’s our out of touch politicians who have let us down.
Of course this is not only a problem in Maine, economic disparity is growing nationwide. While the top 20 percent of households in this country are on the way to earning more than one-half of the total national income, wages for the bottom wage earners fell nearly 10 percent between 1979 and 1999 and this reflects the trend in the middle class as well. We should all be interested in low wages because we all share this problem together. While the top income earners bear less and less of this burden, lower and middle income earners pay the lion share of services like food stamps and heating assistance needed to fill in the gaps for those of us who do not make livable wages.
We are often told by our political leaders in Maine that Increasing access to higher education is the best way out of poverty and of course increasing access to higher education is an excellent goal, but education alone is not the complete answer to increasing wages across the board. Maine is now predominantly a service industry, and even if we all had PhD’s we will still need people to care for the sick, disabled, and elderly among us, make our food and bag our groceries. These jobs, like being a lawyer or doctor are all valuable components of a well run community and without them, our civil society would break down. See post Katrina New Orleans to realize that a society is unable to operate without its low paid service workforce. Moreover with the current rate of off-shoring of jobs the nationwide trend toward a service economy shows no sign of reversing soon. You will notice most of these service jobs in Maine are filled by adults and not teenagers waiting for their lives to start as opponents of higher wages would have you believe. Many adults in Portland are sharing apartments with multiple roommates and living check to check. In order to get by many Mainers must work multiple jobs, rarely see their loved ones, and make impossible choices between paying heat, rent, electric, food or medicine? Surely the hard working Maine people who fill these jobs are no less worthy of a decent livable wage than others, yet our state’s leaders have come to accept that people working these service jobs somehow deserve below even subsistence wages. In other words, they allow that half the people in Maine will live in poverty. This is unacceptable, immoral and harmful to us all.
Despite what critics say a living wage is possible. Over seventy localities across the country have adopted living wage ordinances and studies show that no significant job loss has resulted in these places. The ordinances are usually enacted on the city level and seek to increase the wages of city employees who make less than a living wage with the theory being that this will have a significant upward pressure on wages across the board.
Rather than continuously pine over the lack of good paying jobs that are always just beyond the horizon let’s take action to make those jobs that we do have here and now pay well enough to support ourselves and our families so that we might realize that American dream of doing better than our parents did. It’s a moral imperative.
We all must share this burden. Let’s have the real debate that really affects people’s lives today. It is time we insist that every working person in Maine not make merely the minimum, but that we as policy makers and citizens make it our full time goal to see that every worker in Maine makes a living wage.
-Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram