Inquirer Editorial: Pocket change for the working poor

Sheila Oliver
Sheila Oliver
Posted: January 31, 2013

A quarter? Really?

That's all Gov. Christie has offered the working poor: a 25-cent-an-hour increase in New Jersey's minimum wage, followed by three more quarters over three years, eventually raising the rate from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour.

That's chump change for people who haven't had a raise since 2005.

The cost of living in New Jersey is 27.6 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2008 report by the New Jersey Minimum Wage Advisory Commission. But the Garden State is not one of the 19 states where the minimum wage exceeds the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. The state's minimum-wage workers need second and third jobs to make ends meet.

Christie's proposal came in a conditional veto of a bill that would have raised the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, while setting in motion further increases tied to the cost of living. His compromise shows insufficient sympathy for struggling low-wage workers. It seems the Clintonian "feel your pain" compassion he showed after Superstorm Sandy doesn't extend to all the state's vulnerable citizens.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) lobbied hard to tie minimum-wage hikes to the consumer price index - as 10 other states do - so that the working poor would no longer be held hostage to political whimsy. Given New Jersey's history of rarely increasing the minimum wage, its lowest-income workers can expect a boost every eight or so years. That is just not acceptable.

Unfortunately, the only likely alternative to the bill Christie vetoed would be bad economic policy. The Democratic-controlled Legislature is promising to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot linking minimum-wage increases to the cost of living (with the likely additional motive of galvanizing Democratic voters in November). Given the difficulty of undoing a change to the state's constitution, that would prevent the state from acting nimbly in a downturn.

Polls suggest voters would pass such an amendment. But legislation remains the smarter course, which is why Christie should have signed the bill before him.

The bill's supporters probably don't have enough votes to override Christie's veto, but they should try. Those who vote against giving the working poor a hand up will have to explain themselves to the voters in November, when all 120 legislative seats are up for grabs.

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