One for the Workers!

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fi-hughMay Day, also known as International Workers Day, is officially May 1st. This year, in Maryland, it came a few days later. But then the millions of Americans who work for low wages have always had to wait for victories. It’s been over six years since the last modest increase in our minimum wage. But thanks to progressive activists and responsive representatives, on May 5th Governor O’Malley signed into law a bill raising Maryland’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2018.

I am not an economist, so I don’t often get into debates about whether raising minimum wage will accelerate or dampen economic growth. Some argue that it will stimulate the economy thanks to the influx of spending power to those who are most likely to use that power – i.e. to spend the money rather than squirrel it away in investment accounts or gold coins under the mattress. Others argue that raising the minimum wage leads businesses to fire workers and slow growth due to the cost of increased wages and benefits.

One group, Raise Maryland, points to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute claim that “hundreds of thousands of Marylanders will benefit from the increase, putting hundreds of millions more in their pockets in the next two years.” This would, advocates argue, lead to 500 million dollars of new consumer spending that would create 1000+ new jobs.

One of my Takoma Park neighbors, U.S. Labor Sec. Tom Perez, attended O’Malley’s bill signing, praising Maryland for being a leader in this cause. “When you put money in people’s pockets, people spend it,” Perez said. “When people spend it, businesses have to hire more people. When businesses hire more people, everybody benefits. That’s why the minimum wage works.” Other states such as Delaware, Connecticut, Vermont, and West Virginia are getting on board for similar reasons.

I take the radical position that even IF the short or moderate term affect of raising the minimum wage is that it slows the economy, the ethical benefits outweigh the economic dampening. For that reason alone I support state and national efforts to assure that wages reflect a basic consideration for the dignity of all people. As Governor O’Malley put it, “Nobody who works full time should have to raise their family in poverty.”

This is why I am proud that the day before O’Malley helped Maryland do what’s right that the American Ethical Union passed a resolution put forward by the New York Society for Ethical Culture. This resolution demanded an “achievable minimum wage” throughout the country. It pointed out that many full-time workers were barely surviving, relying on food stamps and shelters. The resolution urged us to work for a national minimum wage of a modest $10.10 per hour, which while perhaps still not a “living wage,” was within reach of even our polarized national legislators.

Perhaps Capitol Hill can take a lesson from Annapolis. As Prince George’s County Democrat and chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, Del. Dereck E. Davis, said, “The House of Delegates is trying to do what [our national] Congress should be doing.” At least, for those Marylanders working hard for us and their families, there is some reason to cheer. As Davis said, “To those deciding between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table, help is on the way.”

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