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Andrew Wilkes

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Now, Not Later: Increasing New York State's Minimum Wage

Posted: 06/01/2012 1:40 pm

Governor Cuomo has an opportunity to exercise economic leadership on behalf of the Empire State's most vulnerable families. Despite his characterizations, raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 can and should be done. According to a recent Siena College poll, 79 percent of New York State voters share this sentiment. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver champions an increased minimum wage. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos opposes it. Governor Cuomo, then, is the difference maker. Given his political capital, deal-making abilit, and high approval rating, Albany's chief executive has the leverage to get the bill passed. Mr. Cuomo has voiced public support for the wage hike, but refuses to put his weight behind the measure.

Business groups, by contrast, are mounting an increasingly visible campaign to pass the bill. Last week, the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce and Costco endorsed the minimum wage proposal. Additionally, more than 180 businesses, as a part of the coalition Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, signed a statement affirming the updated wage floor. Their support shatters the illusion that the business community uniformly views the measure as a "job-killer." Far from killing jobs, lifting the minimum wage can reduce costs associated with employee turnover and increase workforce productivity. Consider the retail sector as an example: two separate studies, one from the the Wharton School of Business and one conducted for the Coca-Cola's Retailing Research Council maintain that increasing wages has a positive effect on the production and retention of employees.

Passing an increase in the state minimum wage creates a single set of income standards, avoiding the wage disparity scenario that could result from enacting the law at the municipal or county level. Moreover, surrounding states -- Connecticut, Vermont and potentially New Jersey -- have wage floors above $7.25. Consequently, increasing our wage mandate is unlikely to give other states a competitive advantage in attracting labor. Lifting the take-home pay of working families will help jolt our consumer-driven economy by infusing at least $600 million into grocery stores, local retailers and other small businesses. Furthermore, this infusion brings two important benefits: it bolsters market conditions for businesses to expand their capacity and capitalize on consumer demand for their goods and services; secondly, it strengthens the purchasing power of working families, creating more income and sales tax revenue for the government.

In addition to the foregoing socioeconomic rationales, I support raising the minimum wage for religious reasons. Economic analysis, for me, begins with the question of Matthew 25 -- "How are the least of these affected? -- insisting that equality of opportunity be available for all. By this measure, New York State is failing: a cursory glance shows that working families in New York are increasingly unable to meet housing, health, food and educational expenses on $7.25, which annualizes at $15,080. Moreover, I approach Cuomo's stated support for the minimum wage in light of Jesus' words: "by their fruits you shall know them." Though uttered in a different context, the essence of his words are relevant. A politically savvy Governor who "supports" a bill but is unwilling to characterize it as a high priority, convene a press conference or even issue a public statement offers strange fruit of support.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once remarked that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but in moments of controversy and challenge. The critical question for Governor Cuomo, a Democrat who ran on the Working Families party line, is this: will he risk alienating part of his assiduously cultivated business support and his de facto Republican Senate alliance on behalf of the working families he purportedly represents?

There is also a question for people of faith and of conscience. We have a unique opportunity to forge an interracial, interfaith, cross-class chorus of voices for economic justice. If we embody our shared imperative to pursue justice on behalf of the most vulnerable, we can help push the ball forward. Progressive politicians, at some point, have to cut deals. Labor organizations carefully calibrate legislative campaigns. But religious communities should be a beacon of support for working families. For many of religious institutions, supporting these families is an article of faith, unconditioned by electoral pressures, regulatory frameworks and public opinion polling. From a societal perspective, then, faith leaders are well positioned to speak a difficult truth: $8.50, even when indexed for inflation, is not a living wage; the wage floor ought to be at least $10. $10 an hour may not be possible in this political climate, but advocating for it broadens the menu of available policy options. Secondly, it creates a holistic picture of minimum wage legislation by adding a moral frame to the important economic dimensions of the debate. Cities across the country are passing living wage legislation. Eighteen states have pushed their wage mandate above the federal level of $7.25. Let us hope and pray that New York State will be the 19th state.

 

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