Maine’s hourly minimum wage has been stuck at $7.50 since 2009, when “Avatar” reigned at the box office and Adele won the Grammy for Best New Artist.
Today, an hour’s work at the minimum wage is just enough to buy 2 gallons of milk, and that’s a problem for the many thousands of Mainers struggling to provide for themselves and their families while the cost of groceries, housing, heat, electricity and transportation keeps climbing.
Two-thirds of those earning the minimum wage in Maine are adult women, and most of them do not have a spouse’s income to supplement their own. That’s why the Maine Women’s Lobby strongly supports Question 4 on this fall’s ballot, which will increase the wage to $9 per hour in 2017, then by $1 per year until it reaches $12 in 2020, after which it will rise based on the cost of living, using the consumer price index.
Maine has more women earning less than $20,000 per year and more women living in poverty than our New England neighbors. Nearly half of households with children under age 5 headed by a single woman live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One in four Maine children younger than 5 lives in poverty, and the number of young Maine children living in extreme poverty increased from 13,000 in 2001 to 23,000 in 2014, according to Kids Count data. That’s shameful, and it costs us all because the negative effects of living in poverty at a young age last a lifetime.
No one working full time should live in poverty. By voting to increase the minimum wage, we can help hardworking families make ends meet, while injecting funds into our local economy. Workers who earn low wages spend their money locally on food, rent, clothes, medicine and other basic needs. No wonder 500 small businesses across Maine have already endorsed the referendum — they understand that we all benefit when our neighbors have more money to spend.
Question 4 contains a second important provision: It increases the base wage for workers who earn tips from $3.75 per hour to $5 in 2017, then by $1 per year until it matches the full minimum wage. Again, this provision would especially benefit women, who are 72 percent of tipped wage earners.
On average, those earning the tipped wage make just $8.72 per hour, including tips. They are more than twice as likely as other workers to live in poverty, and three times as likely to rely on food stamps. Creating one fair wage would mean that a woman’s earnings would depend on one predictable factor, the number of hours she works, rather than on the generosity of her customers. It also would mean that no woman would have to put up with unwanted sexual attention just to support herself and her family.
Seven states — Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington — have no subminimum tipped wage. They have strong restaurant industries, menu prices are not higher than in other states, and customers haven’t stopped tipping.
Passing Question 4 will increase wages for 181,000 workers, or one-third of Maine’s workforce. It will mean a wage increase for one in three single parents and one in four workers over 55. About 60,000 Maine children will benefit from one or both parents getting a raise. It’s an effective strategy to improve our economy, and we don’t have to look to other states to see that it works.
On Jan. 1, the city of Portland raised its minimum wage to $10.10. That’s a faster, higher increase than proposed by Question 4, yet five months later, Greg Dugal, who worked against the ordinance on behalf of the Maine Restaurant Association and Maine Innkeepers Association for nearly two years, acknowledged that “ the sky has not fallen.” In fact, Portland’s economy remains strong.
Passing Question 4 will benefit thousands of working families while stimulating the Maine economy. It will create one fair base wage for all workers. It is one critical strategy to improve both the current well-being and the long-term prospects of thousands of Maine children. It is the right thing to do.
The Maine Women’s Lobby asks all Maine voters to join us in voting yes on Question 4.
Eliza Townsend is the executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.