Shrinking wage: Restore the buying power of the Pa. minimum

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Pennsylvania doesn’t have to wait for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage. Lawmakers in Harrisburg have the power to help the state’s low-wage workers right now.

Democrats and a coalition of labor leaders, religious groups and other advocates are pushing for an increase, but a change in the status quo will take a change of heart from Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislative majority.

The state’s minimum wage has been $7.25 an hour for five years and, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry, 5.5 percent of Pennsylvania’s workforce — 190,800 people — earn the minimum or less. Of those workers, 65 percent are women, 74 percent are white, 58 percent are under the age of 25 and 60 percent did not progress beyond their high school graduations, if that.

Raising the wage won’t solve all of their problems, especially those at the lower end of the educational spectrum, but it will help with such modest needs as paying the rent, buying groceries or filling the car with gas. And people earning $7.25 need the help. Their hourly wage hasn’t changed since 2009 but, during the same time span, the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Pittsburgh has jumped from $670 to $769, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of food costs for a family of two has increased from $360.70 to $383.50, and the price of a gallon of gas has risen from $1.96 to $3.58.

An increase in the wage won’t allow for luxuries, but it will help with the basics.

There are multiple measures pending in the state capital regarding the state’s minimum wage, including proposals from state Sen. Christine Tartaglione, a Philadelphia Democrat, which would raise the wage first to $9 an hour and then, a year later, to $10.10 an hour.

A large majority of Pennsylvanians support an increase. According to a Quinnipiac University poll last month, 38 percent of state voters would support an increase to $10.10 an hour, 16 percent favor some increase but not as high as that, and 14 percent favor setting the rate above $10.10.

Here’s hoping that, in this legislative election year, Republican lawmakers will want to please the majority of Pennsylvanians who want a higher minimum wage.

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