Aaron White: When buying power increases, everyone in Idaho stands to benefit

GUEST OPINION MINIMUM WAGE

February 13, 2014 

A bill to raise the minimum wage in Idaho received a hearing in the Legislature on Monday, and such relief couldn’t have come sooner.

There is growing concern about this issue on both sides of the aisle, as Idaho is currently in last place in three national wage categories, and we lead the nation in minimum-wage workers per capita — as House Speaker Scott Bedke put it, that’s “a dubious distinction.” For Idahoans who work hard and play by the rules, this is the right thing to do so that these workers don’t have to barely eke out a living.

Idaho’s current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour traps workers in a low-wage cycle — and if you’re a taxpayer, it’s costing you. Right now, a minimum-wage earner would have to work nearly 80 hours per week to make enough to meet their most basic needs — food, rent, clothing and transportation. At that rate, it’s nearly impossible for those who earn minimum wage to live without government subsidies, let alone save for an education or get ahead. Increasing the minimum wage would give some people the boost they need to become financially independent.

By not raising the minimum wage, we force the average taxpayer to subsidize big businesses such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s that don’t pay workers enough to get by while reaping billions in profits. Those tax dollars would be better left in the pockets of consumers to be spent in the local economy, but instead they’re used to supplement the income of minimum-wage workers. When businesses pay their employees enough to get by on their own, all taxpayers will be able to keep a bit more of their own money, and minimum-wage workers can enjoy the pride that comes with financial independence.

Increasing the minimum wage also has the potential to help local businesses. When minimum-wage earners gain a bit more buying power, they will put that extra money back into the local economy, paying for rent, groceries and child care. Moreover, numerous studies show that raising the minimum wage has no correlation with job loss. In fact, a poll conducted by Small Business Majority shows that two-thirds of small businesses support raising the minimum wage.

Opponents of raising the minimum wage sometimes cast blame on workers for not getting an education. Or they argue that most minimum-wage workers are teens making a little extra spending money. In fact, minimum-wage workers are more educated today than ever. And it’s a myth that most minimum-wage earners are teens who don’t really need the pay increase — 88 percent of minimum-wage workers are at least 20 years old, and nearly a third of them have children, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Raising the minimum wage isn’t a complete solution to Idaho’s low-wage woes. However, by reducing the gap between minimum wage and a livable wage, we can start to help workers dig out of the low-wage, low-education trap that keeps them from surviving without public assistance and creates a drag on Idaho’s economy. I hope that lawmakers carefully examine the issue now that the bill is before them and think about their many constituents who are working hard but losing ground as they struggle to enter the middle class.

Aaron White is an electrician and the secretary-treasurer of the Idaho state AFL-CIO.

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