Connecticut legislators will return to Hartford this January facing a grim budget situation and difficult choices about how much austerity their constituents can bear. Yet lawmakers do not face only bad options. They also have a clear opportunity to improve the lives of struggling Connecticut workers and save the state money — by raising the minimum wage.
More and more Connecticut residents now work full-time — often at multiple jobs — but cannot earn enough to provide for their families. As a result, they are forced to rely on government assistance to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, childcare, and healthcare.
As minimum wage worker Melody Robitaille explains, “most people living in poverty in Connecticut are just like me — hard-working moms just trying to get by and raise our kids. We shouldn’t have to work so hard but be paid so little that even the idea of being able to afford our groceries and our own apartment is just a far-fetched dream.”
Faced with this reality, the state legislature in 2015 created a Low-Wage Employer Advisory Board to examine the causes of low wages and consider steps to ensure economic stability for Connecticut workers. I am the chair of that Board.
Over the past year the Board has held public hearings and received testimony from experts, low-wage workers, employers and other members of the public. In total, we received testimony from more than 100 individuals and organizations on all sides of the issue. We have also reviewed the leading academic studies on the effects of a minimum wage increase on the broader economy, and engaged in lengthy debate and discussion.
After considering these views, a substantial majority of the Board – ten out of thirteen — agreed on a single recommendation: increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The Board’s full report and recommendations will be published on December 1.
We based our recommendations on compelling evidence that a minimum wage increase would help many Connecticut families achieve a dignified life, save state money, and boost the economy.
Connecticut has seen substantial job growth since the Great Recession. But the high-paid jobs lost during the recession have not returned. Instead new positions are disproportionately low-wage jobs that cannot sustain a decent life in one of the most expensive states in the country.
MIT’s Living Wage calculator estimates that a single parent with one child working full-time would need to make $26.41 an hour to make ends meet, while two adults with two children would each need to make $16.89 an hour.
Yet about 30 percent of Connecticut workers currently earn less than $15 an hour. The majority of these workers are employed full-time and are the primary providers for their families. The Board heard from numerous residents who work so many extra hours that they are unable to spend quality time with their children — but still cannot pay their bills.
Poverty wages have a devastating impact not only on individual families, but also on the broader economy. Low-wage employers shift the costs of supporting their employees to the state. Connecticut spends $486 million a year on cash assistance and health care to working families alone. This does not count spending on other state programs for low-income residents, such as childcare subsidies.
Economists estimate that raising the minimum wage by 10 percent is likely to lead to a 2.4 percent decline in poverty rates, helping families and reducing the strain on state resources.
Minimum wage opponents often claim that an increase will cost the state jobs. Yet the overwhelming weight of economic evidence demonstrates that it would not hurt employment.
This is because raising wages puts more money into the pocket of workers, allowing them to buy more from Connecticut businesses. Higher wages also tend to improve employee morale and reduce turnover—saving employers the costs of constantly hiring and training new employees. Even where businesses increase automation in response to a higher minimum wage, economists have found that improved efficiency is likely to lead businesses to create other — and better — jobs.
After almost a year of study and consideration, one thing became obvious: when it comes to a gradual rise in the minimum wage, the real choice is not between jobs and wages. The choice is between the poverty-producing jobs we have now and poverty-reducing jobs we could have with a higher minimum wage.
Legislators in a budget crisis rarely face easy choices, but raising the minimum wage to $15 over 5 years happens to be one of them. It makes economic sense, helps our most vulnerable residents, and has the support of over 60 percent of Connecticut voters.
James Bhandary-Alexander is the Chair of Connecticut’s Low Wage-Employer Advisory board, an attorney at New Haven Legal Assistance, and a Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law at the Yale Law School.
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