Inquirer Editorial: Help where it's needed

Restaurant workers may be affected by wage legislation in Harrisburg.
Restaurant workers may be affected by wage legislation in Harrisburg. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 08, 2013

With new census figures showing low- and middle-income workers continue to lose ground, lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are taking steps to boost the lowest wages.

Though legislation vetoed by Gov. Christie would have been preferable, polls show New Jersey voters are likely to approve a constitutional amendment raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour and hitching it to the consumer price index. And Philadelphia voters may soon get a chance to raise the wages of city subcontractors.

But it could be a harder struggle for most of Pennsylvania's low-wage workers. State Sen. Christine Tartaglione (D., Phila.) is sponsoring bills that would raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour by 2015 and would tie it to inflation. She is also proposing to raise the minimum wage for waitstaff and other workers who earn tips, currently $2.83 an hour, to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage.

As the minority chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee, Tartaglione might be able to help the bills there, but she and fellow Senate Democrats pushed this idea two years ago without success. And even if the bill makes it through the Senate, there's no telling what the more conservative House will do.

The bills' backers are hoping the coming election will put pressure on legislators and Gov. Corbett to recognize what people in every community in the state already know - that although the economy is recovering, many low- and middle-income households just aren't feeling it yet.

Census figures show that in terms of inflation-adjusted earnings, Pennsylvania's middle class has been sliding backward for years. The state's current median household income of $51,904 pays less rent and buys less food than the corresponding figure did in 1997. Real income levels in Philadelphia and its suburbs are lower than they were in 2007, when the recession began.

Throughout the country, those in the middle and at the bottom of the income scale have fallen harder and faster than those at the top, who have seen their incomes grow, according to the National Employment Law Project, a nonpartisan think tank.

Decades ago, more minimum wage workers were teenagers. But now many are parents - often single mothers trying to hold their families together. No wonder so many are relying on food banks.

When put to popular votes, higher minimum wages tend to win overwhelmingly, even in conservative states such as Arizona, Missouri, and Montana. That should send a signal to Pennsylvania legislators who are inclined to vote against raising the minimum wage here. Those workers are their constituents, and they are suffering.

Without some upward pressure through an increase in the minimum wage, slipping earnings will continue to have harmful consequences for working families - as well as an economy that depends on their ability to purchase goods and services.