by Sen. Ethan Strimling and Rep. John Tuttle
The gap between the wealthy and average working people is big and getting bigger.
Indeed, the gap between the richest and poorest in America has grown so wide in the past six years that it is now wider than it has been since 1929, and we all know what happened that year.
Additionally, the number of Americans in poverty has risen even as our overall economy has grown. In fact, while the president passed six tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in the past six years, the number of Maine households with children living in poverty rose 60 percent. And even though the overall economy grew at a respectable rate in 2005, the incomes of most families lagged well behind inflation.
Meanwhile, corporate profits have doubled and the pay gap between the nation's CEOs and average workers is now 10 times greater than it was a generation ago.
It's time to reverse this trend. This week, the Legislature's Labor Committee held a hearing on our proposal to boost the minimum wage in Maine by $1.40, from the current $7 per hour to $8.40.
We believe this is a first and vital step toward guaranteeing an equitable income to Maine's lowest-paid workers.
As the Senate and House chairs of the Labor Committee, we have worked hard over the years to increase the incomes of Maine families. While our state has been a leader on the issue of the minimum wage, the increases have never been enough to represent a true living wage.
According to studies, an average living wage for a single person in Maine is about $9.23 per hour. Additionally, a two-earner family with two children would need to earn roughly $2 more per hour each to meet basic needs, and a single parent supporting two children would have to make twice as much as a single person to meet basic needs.
So how would a $1.40 increase in the minimum wage help support a living wage for all Maine people? Two ways.
First, an aspect of this bill that makes it unique from previous efforts is that wage earners making $8.40 who work a little overtime (around 5 extra hours) could for the first time make enough money to cover basic needs. This is something no previous effort to increase wages has been able to achieve.
Second, LD 1697, An Act To Ensure Fair Wages, would link future increases to the Consumer Price Index, ensuring that wages always rise with inflation.
Opponents will claim that an increase in the minimum wage will cause layoffs or slow job growth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Studies show there is no significant effect on job loss or job gain when the minimum wage increases. But studies also show that a $1 increase in the federal minimum wage alone would lift an estimated 900,000 people out of poverty.
Opponents also argue that teenagers are the dominant population that benefits from a hike in the minimum wage. The fact is 71 percent of minimum wage workers are adults, and most of them are women working to provide for their families, not themselves.
We are hearing from more and more Maine families that it is impossible to get ahead, much less catch up with rising energy and health-care costs.
These stories are particularly difficult to take during a time of record corporate profits, stratospheric CEO salaries and a growing accumulation of wealth in the top 1 percent of the population.
Income inequality not only threatens our economy but our democracy. But to be honest, what most people want is just to be able to support their families, put their kids through college, and retire without hardship.
We can begin to address this issue by raising the wages of our lowest-paid working residents.