The Delaware River separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But the river might as well be an ocean when comparing the minimum wages of each state’s workers.
In New Jersey, Gov. Murphy used a good portion of his first budget address to say that the state, which already has an $8.60-an-hour minimum wage, ought to raise it to $11 an hour by 2019 and $15 an hour in four years.
“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour will boost the incomes of 1.2 million New Jerseyans, and allow them to participate in the economy with dignity,” Murphy said.
He was applauded by a legislature that has already acted responsibly by chaining the minimum wage to the consumer price index.
Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf wants to raise the minimum wage from the lowest in the nation at $7.25 an hour to $12 an hour. But he was met with silence by a legislature that hasn’t had the courage to stand up to business-interest donors and raise the wage since 2007 — even though a 2017 Franklin and Marshall Center for Opinion Research poll showed 61 percent of voters supported an increase.
The raise would affect 1.6 million minimum and other low-wage workers in Pennsylvania, who, in turn, would put their money right into the economy for housing, food, and other essential goods and services, according to Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center.
The Wolf administration estimates a higher minimum wage would also reduce taxpayer costs for social services by about $100 million a year.
State Sen. Scott Wagner, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, sponsored a bill to raise the wage to $8.75 by 2020. But that empty gesture is dying in committee. His two primary opponents oppose raising the wage.
Republican legislative leaders won’t even list minimum wage bills for hearings and votes.
“They are running out of excuses,” says State Rep. Patty Kim (D., Dauphin) who has introduced wage-hike bills three times. “All the states surrounding us have a higher wage,” she said. That includes New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio.
In this region, the wage gap is especially painful. Low-wage workers in New Jersey make about $176 more per month than their counterparts in Pennsylvania, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wolf, the entire House, and half of the state Senate are up for election this year. If Pennsylvania’s elected officials want to improve the economy, reduce government spending, and improve the quality of life, raising the minimum wage is an easy lift.
They certainly know how to raise their own wages. Fearing public outrage, legislators wrote a law in 1995 that hitched their wages to cost-of-living increases so they could avoid public votes. In December, their pay went up .81 percent — to between $99,410 and $136,094, depending on their posts. For comparison, consider that a minimum-wage worker makes only $15,080 a year and that the poverty level is $25,100 for a family of four.
This unconscionable disparity alone should be enough to spur action, but what’s at stake here is the growth and well being of Pennsylvania as a whole.