By Anthony Pollina, Vermont State Senator & Progressive Party Chair
When considering the proposed $15 an hour minimum wage we should all ask ourselves the most important question: What is it like to live on the current minimum wage of $10 an hour?
Start with $20,800. Although that’s before taxes. Subtract rent (a mortgage unlikely at that salary). Then subtract food, heat, gas for the car to get to work and health care. Just the basics. Maybe a pair of winter boots. Snow tires. Maybe an occasional car repair (new car payments unlikely at this salary). Now, you also might need to include food and clothes for the kid.
For perspective, according to the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office the 2016 livable wage for a single person, accounting for basic expenses, is $15.76 in rural areas and $17.64 in urban areas of Vermont. They estimate monthly expenses at $2,220 and $2,495, well more than the $1,600 monthly income provided at the current minimum wage. Even for two wage earners living together and sharing expenses, with no kids, the livable wage is $13.03 each.
Opponents of raising the wage paint a certain picture of minimum wage workers. They say these are generally “entry level” jobs intended to be “short term” until the worker can “take on more responsibility.” (Case Against the $15 Minimum Wage, William Moore, Times Argus 15/5/17). The image is young workers, teenagers and part time or temporary jobs.
But, the data shows us that most minimum wage workers are not kids. They are over 30 years old (65%) and the great majority (72%) work full time. They are adults, many with children. More than 50% of them bring home more than half their family’s income. Over half are women.
It is estimated 90,000 Vermonters will get a raise under the proposed $15 minimum, generating over $250 million in new income in our local economy, because these folks are going to spend their money locally, at local businesses not on Wall Street stocks or Caribbean vacations.
That’s good for business, because the one thing local businesses definitely need to prosper and create more jobs is customers, local folks with money in their pockets to buy their goods and services.
And it’s good for the state budget. Because higher wages, mean higher incomes which means more tax revenue and less need for state funded social services. And, those higher wages might just encourage young workers to stay here or even move to Vermont.
Opponents say we should just let the “market” do the job of determining wages. But, we all know the kind of job the market is doing on wages. For middle and lower income earners, wages have been stagnant or declining over the last decade, while the wealthiest have seen their incomes skyrocket. Vermont poverty, including child poverty, is increasing and working people are showing up in homeless shelters because even with a job housing can be out of reach.
Some say workers will lose ground if wages are increased and employers decide to cut back employees hours. But, low wage workers lose ground every time the cost of health care, gasoline, electricity, clothing or anything else goes up while their wages are stuck.
It’s also important to remember, the proposed increase in the minimum wage would be implemented slowly allowing plenty of time for evaluation and adjustment if needed.
And, as we brace for the Trump Administration’s expected cuts to social services, from children’s health insurance to Social Security, we must do all we can to protect those our Governor calls the most vulnerable.
Low wages and stagnant incomes are hurting many Vermont families and our Vermont economy. No one who works should live in poverty. And, raising wages is one of the most effective ways to overcome poverty, protect Vermonters from Trump’s cuts and create an economy that works better for all of us.