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Commentary Working & the Economy

Opinion: A $15-an-Hour Minimum Wage Is No Longer Sufficient

Wage
Pixabay.com photo by nosheep.

By Lisa Burnam 

The writer is a mother of two and a democratic socialist candidate for Prince George’s County Council in District 9.

$30,000 a year. Or, put another way, $2,600 a month — that’s how much $15 an hour amounts to before taxes.

A recent cost-of-living study put out by Missouri Economic Research and Information Center (MERIC) examined what families pay for standard necessities, such as groceries, housing, utilities, transportation and health. It showed that Maryland is the seventh most expensive state in the nation, and our housing costs sit 64% above the national average.

Though MERIC’s study did not account for other common out-of-pocket costs, like student debt or child care, they are worth noting.

In particular, child care is an incredible burden for hundreds of thousands of families across the state. Using CAP’s child care calculator, I found that Marylanders pay at least $1,008 per month for in-home child care or $2,040 per month for day care for just one child. Maryland Family Network reported that in Prince George’s County, where I live, it costs about $22,159 for full-time care of a toddler and infant at a center. That expense alone would consume 87% of income for a parent making just $15 an hour.

In 2022, shouldn’t the fight for a living wage be a fight for more than $15? It’s been a decade since McDonald’s workers in New York City first walked out of their jobs protesting the multibillion-dollar company’s poverty wages. Back then, the average worker made anywhere from $7 to $8 an hour. A raise to $15 meant a 100% increase in pay. But the dollar’s value has decreased since then.

We’d need to pass an $18.21 minimum right now to match the buying power of $15 in 2012 to keep with the spirit of the fight.

Wages haven’t kept up with inflation or rising costs, and both are persistent features of our economic system. Yet here we are shackled to a wage escalator that maintains the same sluggish speed despite year after year of economic slumps, housing crises, a global pandemic and record-breaking profits for big businesses.

I supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. The left benefitted from Bernie’s commitment to using his platform to broadly popularize the demand for a living wage by workers, unions and activists from around the country. The movement that coalesced around his campaign compelled the Democratic establishment to take stock of popular constituent demands, like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal and a $15 minimum wage.

But our demands must and should evolve.

Through local governance, people can more directly affect the policies that shape their lives.

I’m running for Prince George’s County Council, and one of our top campaign priorities is a $25 minimum wage. I’d start by raising the hourly minimum for workers at large corporations operating in the county. Our labor laws allow counties to set wage minimums that supersede state and federal. Yet, as of Jan. 1, 2022, we’re still fluctuating between $12.20 and $12.50 per hour. Most workers won’t see $15 until 2025, 13 years after the original call.

How could we ever claim that as a win for Prince George’s County workers?

In 2018, sitting council member, Sydney Harrison, endorsed by UFCW, promised to raise the minimum wage to $15 once elected to office and has not delivered. But, last year, Montgomery County reached a $15 minimum benefitting workers at large employers, the result of a bill passed in 2017.

Prince George’s County Council could have immediately passed a $15 minimum when the pandemic hit, but they didn’t. The county recently lauded Giant Food as a great partner, even though it’s among the largest employers, cut hazard pay early in the pandemic and temporary pay bumps more recently.

The people of Prince George’s County deserve so much more, especially grocery workers who risk illness and death to keep all of us fed.

We need at least a $25 minimum so folks can make ends meet. But to maintain a living wage, additional policies are required that significantly reduce the cost of health care, child care and housing. We need genuine leaders who will use their legislative power to work in the interests of working families and disrupt the economic ecosystem that keeps people poor.