N.J. minimum wage overdue for a boost

New Jersey’s poorest workers haven’t had a raise in three years. But Gov. Christie and the Legislature still refuse to join 18 other states in raising its minimum wage.

In New Jersey, the minimum wage  sits at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. That’s about $15,000 a year in a state that draws the poverty line at $44,700 for a family of four.

Christie called Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s proposal to amend the state constitution to include an automatic minimum- wage hike a “truly ridiculous idea.”

But while the governor may be right about adding such a provision to the constitution, what’s truly “ridiculous” is that a mechanic’s wife and a factory worker were among the scores of people looking for help recently at a Gloucester County food bank because their paychecks weren’t enough to cover essentials.

Child poverty in Gloucester County more than doubled between 2010 and 2011. According to census data, 7,395 children were living in families earning about $22,000 a year or less.

Sweeney, a Democrat, who represents Gloucester County, is right to call for automatic increases in the minimum wage tied to changes in the cost of living. But the constitution is the wrong vehicle.

Embedding something as volatile as fluctuations in the Consumer Price Index in a document that can take two years to change would deprive New Jersey of the agility it needs to quickly adjust to economic changes.

Likewise, Sweeney’s plan could take two years to implement. That means poor families would have to wait that long for a raise.

Christie says he doesn’t like automatic increases. But the state’s failure to raise the minimum wage when it’s clearly needed is exactly why automatic hikes make sense. A family’s survival should not depend on political whims.

The argument that raising the minimum wage causes employers to cut jobs has been largely debunked. Poor workers actually spend most of their incomes fueling the economy, thus creating the need for more jobs. That would be great in a state with the lowest economic growth and highest unemployment rate in the region.

Christie should quit grandstanding for a national political audience that doesn’t understand it costs a lot more to live in New Jersey than Iowa. It is time for him to make a deal with Democrats in the Legislature and help New Jersey’s poorest workers.