Raising Minimum Wage a Good Start, But Area Legislators Should Be Bolder

D.C. Council members did the right thing this week when they unanimously voted to raise the minimum wage in the District to $11.50 per hour. If the measure is approved by Mayor Vince Gray, the wage increase will take effect by 2016. After that it will be tied to the inflation rate. The D.C. Council vote comes on the heels of similar legislation in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in adjacent Maryland. This could create "a contiguous region with 2.5 million residents and a minimum wage higher than any of the 50 states," The Washington Post reports. While these steps are signs of progress, it's important to keep in mind that we have a long way to go before families can survive on minimum wage, particularly in this community.

Wider Opportunities for Women has an index (BEST) that measures the incomes workers need to achieve economic security. It calculates that a family of four in D.C. needs to have two workers earning a minimum of $25.82/hour -- each. For a single parent, it's over $47/hour. We live in a region that consistently makes "best" lists -- 50 Best Cities, Best Cities to Find a Job. The truth is, those lists only apply to some of our community's residents. For others, this has become an increasingly difficult place to live with resources that are always just out of reach.

Washington Area Women's Foundation works with dozens of community partners to remove some of the barriers to those resources and create opportunities for working families living in poverty. There are career training or skills-building programs in our region aimed at preparing low-income residents for higher wage jobs, but far too often we hear about people who cannot access these programs because they can't afford childcare or don't have enough fare for the Metro. They are stuck in a cycle of poverty that can often feel -- and is -- inescapable.

A few extra dollars per hour will make a world of difference to people like Crystal, a mother in Washington, D.C. who was only able to work the graveyard shift at minimum wage jobs because she couldn't afford child care. She stayed at home with her child all day and then dropped him off at a friend's house at night so that she could go to work. Eventually, the District gave her a child care subsidy that enabled her to take training classes during the day and continue to work at night until she got the certification she needed to land a better-paying job.

Unfortunately, Crystal's story is not unique. Two-thirds of minimum wage earners are women. Many of them are caring for children and/or an elderly relative. The good news, however, is that increasing the minimum wage is a rising tide that will lift many boats:
  • Workers will be better able to care for themselves and their families.
  • Businesses will see an increase in spending from people who have more money. It's estimated that for every dollar added to the minimum wage, a household will spend an additional $2,800 the following year.
  • And less tax revenue will go toward the important support services that fill the gap between low wages and the actual cost of living.

The D.C. Council also voted for legislation that would allow tipped workers to accrue five days of sick time -- a move that should benefit both customers and restaurant workers, presumably by encouraging kitchen and wait staff to stay home when they're sick. But while five days of sick time is a step toward improving conditions in restaurants, at $2.77 per hour there's still little incentive for a worker who relies on tips to call in sick. I look forward to further discussion about increasing the tipped minimum wage, as well.

As exciting as it will be to see the lowest-wage workers earning more and receiving better benefits, these are just a couple of steps in the right direction. $11.50 per hour still works out to about $23,000 -- just one-third the income of the typical D.C. metro area household. Together, we can keep the momentum going and work strategically to improve incomes and opportunities for low-income working families. This work should include more investments in education and job training programs so that workers can move into careers that pay more than minimum wage, more affordable housing options, and more access to affordable child care.

This coordinated, region-wide effort is, however, a great start and a sign that change is both possible and desired. I hope the rest of the country is taking note.