Pennsylvania holds the disgraceful distinction of paying the lowest minimum wage in this part of the country.
Every state bordering Pennsylvania has a higher minimum wage, ranging from $10.80 an hour in New York to $8.75 an hour in West Virginia.
In the coming weeks, Pennsylvanians are about to watch what a responsible state can do for low-income workers. They will see New Jersey’s minimum wage of $8.85 an hour put on a track to $15 an hour by 2024, thanks to a deal between New Jersey’s Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy.
Pennsylvania has no such luck.
For years, Pennsylvania Democrats have tried to raise the wage, which – at $7.25 per hour -- has been stagnant for more than a decade. They routinely introduce bills raising it to $12 an hour or $15 an hour, but in every instance, they’ve have been blocked by Republicans who control both houses of the legislature.
One factor pushing New Jersey’s minimum wage is that its cost of living is among the highest in the country.
But even New Jersey’s higher minimum wage isn’t the same as a wage high enough to sustain a family; according to Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator, a New Jersey family of two adults and two children would need to earn $28.37 an hour.
And that figure makes Pennsylvania’s stagnant minimum wage even more pathetic. Compare the state’s minimum of $7.25 to the $24.08 per hour needed for a living wage.
The impact of a higher minimum wage on raising poverty levels is hotly debated, even among economists; some contend it does little to raise poverty levels, and can contribute to a decline in jobs when businesses cut jobs to compensate for higher wages. Most agree, though, that the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with the cost of living.
There is another, more compelling argument that Governor Tom Wolf has made in each of the years he has asked for an increase. Wolf argues that the state could save $100 million in social service costs if it raised the wage. That would be money otherwise spent on the state’s share of aid programs ranging from food stamps to health care.
That echoes a larger and more shocking calculation that made news a few years ago, when the group Americans for Tax Fairness claimed that Walmart’s low wages cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in social service costs, such food stamps, housing support, and health care that its low paid workers needed to survive. While some criticized the report because those figures were based on a single state’s experience, the point is that the minimum wage doesn’t just impact individual families -- but all of us.
Maybe Pennsylvanians, struggling with poverty wages, can pin their hopes on the outcome of a meeting this week of Raise the Wage PA, a coalition of advocates from labor, religious, women’s, and public policy groups, who will be developing a strategy to raise the wage. But the advocates, governor, and minority party legislators can’t do this alone. Pennsylvanians should ramp up the pressure on Harrisburg representatives to recognize the high cost of low wages.