My Turn: It's time we offered support for minimum-wage earners

Posted: Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Whatever our individual life circumstances may be and wherever we may find ourselves on the economic ladder, it's probably safe to assume most of us realize our income doesn't stretch as far as it used to. What may have been considered a decent wage and the beginnings of a prosperous annual family budget just a few short years ago may mean the bare necessities being met today.

Although mortgage rates have been at record lows for some time now, one glance at the sticker prices of new and used cars today versus a few years back is a pretty clear reality check for all of us about how far a buck will go. We're not talking about telling the kids about the good old days when a Coke cost a nickel here either! This is simply a comment on contemporary times in Alaska and in America, about the shrinking real buying power of each of our budgets, about how it affects us all, some worse than others, the least powerful the most.

In 2002 the Alaska Legislature overwhelmingly passed and the governor approved an increase in the minimum wage to $7.15 an hour effective Jan. 1, 2003, with an annual minimum wage adjustment for inflation based on the consumer price index.

House Bill 199 was introduced last month that would remove the annual adjustment for inflation based on the consumer price index. If successful, no one knows when the minimum wage might be addressed again.

Although I'm sure most folks can readily relate to the many reasons why and how a non-adjustable income would relate to their continual loss of buying power, several stand out as particularly relevant to the most affected and least powerful in this situation.

The minimum wage, even at the current rate of $7.15 an hour, remains well below the poverty level. The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $17, 601, but the minimum wage provides an annual wage of only $14, 872.

The real and actual buying power of the minimum wage has steadily declined since 1968. The current minimum wage would need to be $8.27 per hour in order to have the purchasing power of the 1968 minimum wage.

These most affected and least powerful minimum wage earners are basically subject to the whim and mercy of the vagaries of politics and the legislative process. Low-wage workers should be afforded annual adjustments that will keep them and their families out of poverty without having to rely on legislative action year in and year out.

Much of the income in our state, i.e. federal benefits, Social Security and federal pensions are tied to the cost of living. The Consumer Price Index is the standard measure of inflation for cost of living adjustments for folks much less close to the edge. A true sense of justice and integrity would dictate that the same evaluation of need apply to the most in need and least powerful. Our Alaska and American senses of justice and equity demand that those earning the minimum wage not be allowed to sink deeper and deeper into poverty, while others of us reap the benefits of rising productivity. The minimum wage should continue to be indexed to the Consumer Price Index, rising annually and automatically as the cost of living increases and those who are most in need and least powerful true buying power declines.

House Bill 199 is in the Labor and Commerce Committee as we speak. If you feel as I do, that the least powerful and most in need among us need our voice, please call, write or e-mail the following three members of the Labor and Commerce Committee and urge them to oppose HB 199 and assure that minimum wage earners will not sink more deeply into poverty.

Rep. Bob Lynn, State Capitol Rm. 415, Juneau, AK 99801-1182, 907-465-4931, 800-870-4931,

Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, State Capitol Rm. 108, Juneau, AK. 99801-1182, 907-465-3783, 877-460-3783,

Rep. Carl Gatto, State Capitol Rm. 411, Juneau, AK. 99801-1182, 907-465-3743, 800-565-3743,

Jody Liliedahl is a member of the Juneau Catholic Diocese's Peace and Justice Commission and is a caretaker at the diocese's Shrine of St. Therese.

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