DN editorial: Wolf's order to raise wages for Pa. workers a good start

600 tom wolf reuters
Tom Wolf at the Pa. state capitol in Harrisburg.

NOT MANY would ever accuse Pennsylvania of being a progressive state - either politically or practically.

On measures such as funding for education, safety-net spending, tax policy and other points, we often end up in the bottom half of national lists.

But this week, Gov. Wolf signed an executive order to increase the minimum wage for state workers from the state minimum of $7.25 to $10.15 an hour.

This is progress, plain and simple.

Predictably, some Republican lawmakers and conservative thinkers criticized the move, saying that the state can't afford the price tag for moving people from $7.25-an-hour poverty wages. Conservative economic policy groups trotted out their usual alarms that this move would cost jobs, though these supposed losses are never offset by increased consumer spending that hikes the wage produce.

Of course, Wolf's move might seem an odd turn of events, given the state hasn't been able to pass a budget for the past year, but that's missing the larger point of a hike in the minimum wage.

The past few years have seen dramatic movement on the minimum wage. President Obama signed an executive order in 2014 that raised the wage for federal construction and service contracts to $10.10 an hour.

Increasingly, vocal protests across the nation demanding higher wages have not fallen on deaf ears: Twenty-nine states have raised their minimum wages above the federal wage of $7.25.

Many cities also have enacted increases, including Philadelphia. Last year, then-Mayor Nutter, City Council and voters approved a measure to raise the wage for constractors and subcontractors doing work for the city to $12 per hour.

National retailers and restaurants such as Walmart and McDonald's also have bumped up wages. Two weeks ago, Walmart began instituting the second phase of a plan to raise many workers' wages.

These are dramatic changes, but not surprising given the backdrop: the increasing income disparities in this country, coupled with growing recognition that low wage workers cost all of us. Those who can't afford to house, feed or get medical care for their families rely on social services. And the inability to see the connection between low wages and high costs of food stamps and other taxpayer-funded assistance is a dangerous and expensive blindness.

How expensive? The federal government spends over $127 billion a year and the states paid another $25 billion to help support working families - the largest group of low wage workers - according to a study last year by the University of California Berkeley Labor Research Center. More than half of fast-food workers, and nearly half of child-care and home-care workers get public money. And in Pennsylvania, over half of the $1.9 billion the state pays to support Medicaid, CHIP and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families goes to working families.

Not the unemployed, but the underpaid . . . including low-wage state workers. That means taxpayers are subsidizing businesses and other employers that pay wages that drive big profits but don't allow workers to raise their families.

Wolf's order is a step in the right direction; what's needed is progress on raising the wage statewide.