I DIDN'T REALIZE how truly low we are until a recent Washington Post blog item caught my attention.
I already knew Pennsylvania is one of 21 states whose minimum wage is still the federally mandated $7.25 an hour. I was aware that each of our six bordering states has a higher minimum wage, and that every other northeastern state, save New Hampshire, is already above the federal minimum.
But it turns out that after adjusting for cost of living, Pennsylvania ranks 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in minimum wage purchasing power.
Niraj Chokshi, who writes about state and local policy for the Post, examined data released by the U.S. Commerce Department Bureau of Economic Analysis. The bureau measures the cost of goods and services in the various states, and develops a regional price parity index.
Chokshi factored that index into each state's current minimum wage and then did the math to rank the relative value of the wage by states.
Pennsylvania workers don't fare well. When it comes to how much the dollar actually buys after accounting for the cost of living, Pennsylvania's minimum wage is almost the lowest in the country. Only in New Jersey, Virginia, New Hampshire and Hawaii does it buy less.
It should make all Pennsylvanians recognize the importance of Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal for a minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour. I certainly do. I've always been sensitive to the benefits of a strong minimum wage. Maybe it's because my grandfather, a U.S. congressman in the 1930s, was a co-sponsor of the original federal minimum wage law enacted in 1938.
A raise for Pennsylvania minimum wage workers would make a significant difference in their lives. It would also make a positive difference for our economy.
While our minimum wage is lower than all of our neighbors' and is scraping the bottom nationally, our job-creation ranking is about the same. Toward the end of 2014, we ranked 50th in the nation in job growth.
That's not entirely a coincidence. A 2006 report from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute found that small business and retail sector jobs grew more quickly in higher minimum wage states.
Many other studies have produced similar findings. In fact, there is no evidence that a higher minimum wage correlates to lost jobs throughout the economy. Usually it's just the opposite.
Why? Contrary to arguments that increasing the minimum wage puts a burden on "job creators," it actually helps the economy because the real job creators are customers who have money to spend. A higher minimum wage will put more money into the pockets of customers to use for clothing, food, a used car, an appliance or other necessities.
Thus, a higher minimum wage enhances demand for goods and services, which is vital in a society where 70 percent of our economy is consumer-driven. A minimum wage increase is good for both workers and business.
Pennsylvania's most recent experience is a perfect example. The last time this state boosted its minimum wage in 2006-07, we lifted 100,000 people over the poverty line, and our unemployment rate dropped - yes, dropped. It didn't cost us jobs.
So this should not be a partisan issue, or one that pits liberals versus conservatives, or business versus labor. Everyone benefits when every working person in this country can be a full, self-supporting participant in the economy.
Today, a minimum wage worker, at 40 hours a week, earns about $15,000 annually. That's below poverty level for a household of two. Although you hear claims that minimum-wage workers are just teenagers flipping burgers or working summer jobs, in Pennsylvania as in the nation, about 80 percent of minimum wage earners are adults and about two-thirds are women. Many of them are the sole breadwinner in a household that includes children.
Minimum wage workers are not "takers." Rather they are, by definition, people who are willing to work. And people who are working for a living should not be living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
I don't know if the Legislature will be able to include a minimum wage increase when the already-late budget is finalized for Fiscal Year 2015-16. It should, but with many ancillary issues already in the budget discussion, that might prove difficult.
If a minimum wage increase doesn't pass along with the budget, however, it should be at the top of the agenda when the Legislature next returns to session. It's time to pull Pennsylvania working men and women up off the nation's floor.