During this month's State of the Union address, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage. I don't know if this proposal will move in light of opposition in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. But I took comfort that President Obama, with no more elections before him, used the bully pulpit to preach such a word. This preacher shouted, "Amen!"
The value of the minimum wage has been declining for more than four decades, falling from its highest purchasing power in 1968. If the minimum wage had kept pace, it would now be worth over $10 per hour. But we are stuck at $7.25 and tipped workers like restaurant servers, hairdressers and parking attendants earn even less, just $3.63 per hour.
While politicians fight about raising the minimum wage in Congress, we can actually achieve something in Maryland. A bill pending before the Maryland legislature would raise the minimum wage above the federal rate of $7.25 to $10 by 2015 and index it to the cost of living so that it doesn't again lose value over time.
It's time for our legislators, here in the state with the highest median income in America, to join 19 other states and the District of Columbia and raise the minimum wage above the federal level.
Though I pastor a church now, I have been a minimum wage worker. When I was a teenager, I worked in a fast food restaurant. In that job, I labored alongside hardworking adults supporting families on their low wages. I was not surrounded by lazy people nor was I surrounded by morally bankrupt people. Lazy people don't clean grease traps, food smeared across floors or bathrooms. Morally bankrupt people don't concede to the inhumanity of irate customers. I watched my co-workers rise above and move past the unpleasant aspects of our work to support themselves and their families.
There is a narrative in America that doesn't add up -- that poor people don't work. I know from firsthand experience that poor people work hard. Yet they still qualify for government assistance because the wages that they earn are abysmally low. Poor people are not poor because they are morally deficient. They are poor because they do not earn living wages.
There are too many households in our communities -- families with children -- that struggle to subsist on these low wages and meet rising food, housing and health care costs, let alone funding dwindling or non-existent retirement accounts.
An increased minimum wage will help to facilitate an economic surge in our neighborhoods and communities. If Maryland's minimum wage is increased to $10.00 per hour, more than 500,000 workers -- mostly women and people of color -- will be affected. Increased wages would spur economic activity in the state, with as much $500 million in new spending. This, in turn, could lead to the creation of more than 4,000 new jobs.
Raising the minimum wage is also a matter of justice. An increase is a matter of faith. I am reminded of the words of James 5:4-5. "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty!" The Bible, from the prophets to the Psalms, condemns those who crush the poor and deny workers the dignity they deserve as men and women created in the image of God.
People who work deserve a living wage. We must reverse the growing chasm of inequality that exists between the rich and the poor in our state and our country. I urge our Maryland legislators to take the first step toward justice and self-sufficiency for low-wage workers and their families by increasing our state's minimum wage.
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