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Maryland must raise its minimum wage

Having grown up in a working class family in Rhode Island, I know what's it like for parents to struggle to make ends meet. There were six kids in my family supported by my dad's maintenance man salary and my mother's minimum wage job flipping burgers. Despite having two incomes, during the cold months, we had to choose between grocery shopping and paying the heating bill. There were plenty of pancake suppers during those winters.

The conditions that my family struggled with still exist for so many. The federal and state minimum wage rates remain stuck at $7.25 an hour, or about $15,000 for a full-time worker. After more than three years since the official end of the Great Recession, average wages are still declining in real terms, even as workers throughout the U.S. put in longer hours to get by.

It's time for Maryland to raise the minimum wage and commit to indexing it to keep pace with the rising cost of living. We take pride in being the richest state in the country. We must also fairly compensate the Marylanders who wake up each morning to do the hard work of cleaning office buildings, serving food and providing care for the elderly.

A strong coalition of labor, faith and community groups has come together to advocate for a plan to incrementally raise Maryland's minimum wage to $10 by 2015 and then index it so that wages don't lose value over time.

People are so close to the edge and struggle to make choices about basic things in their lives. Our congregation has two parishioners who are planning their wedding. One is working at Walmart and the other recently was laid off. They have no fixed address, moving between family and friends. When planning a recent counseling session, they almost canceled because they couldn't afford two Metro fares. As they establish their family, it breaks my heart to consider their future.

About 320,000 Maryland workers will benefit directly and indirectly from an increase in the minimum wage. Contrary to the myth that minimum wage workers are mostly young people working part-time, more than 80 percent of the workers who will get this proposed raise are age 20 or older, over half work full-time and another third work between 20 hours and full-time.

An increase in the minimum wage will go right back into the economy, generating economic growth as these workers put food on their tables and raise their families. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that increasing the minimum wage will raise pay for more than 450,000 working Marylanders while injecting approximately $380 million into Maryland's economy and creating an estimated 1,500 jobs.

While the value of higher wages for low-paid workers remains clear, those who oppose any increase in the minimum wage still claim that higher wages will only slow job growth or burden local businesses. These concerns find no support from the facts. Indeed, businesses that pay fair wages to their employees ultimately benefit from reduced turnover and higher worker productivity, as their employees are spared from the struggle of balancing two or more jobs in order to make ends meet.

In fact, the real strain on economic growth in today's economy stems from the decision made by many national fast food chains and big box retailers to inflate their profits by paying rock-bottom wages, siphoning money out of local communities and impoverishing the customer base needed to sustain economic growth. The paradox is that poor folk need places to get inexpensive goods, but it is the poor who get ground down by the big box.

The message of the religious community — whether it is from Moses, Jesus or Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and a personal hero of mine — is that we are called to care for the poor. It's not about charity. It's about creating an equitable system in which all work has dignity, you get a fair wage and everyone has agency in their own lives to reach their full potential. Raising the minimum wage will help put Marylanders on that path.

Reverend David Carl Olson is the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. His email is minister@firstunitarian.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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