A living wage

If state lawmakers don’t increase wages, Californians will

State lawmakers are in a pickle. On Tuesday (March 22), the California Secretary of State’s Office announced that a labor group had gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the general election ballot that would significantly increase the minimum wage over the next five years. Moreover, a Field Poll conducted last summer indicates that voters would support the measure.

This follows the bump low-wage earners received in January, the second step of an increase that took the state’s minimum wage from $8 in 2008 to $10 today. That translates to an annual income of $20,800—an amount that’s nearly twice that of the federal poverty level ($11,702). However, here in the Golden State, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, 10 bucks an hour is more than $2 short of making a living wage.

Here in Butte County, wage earners fare somewhat better. The local living wage for an adult is $9.95 an hour. Thing is, cost-of-living indexes are based on full-time employment, and most low-wage earners don’t work 40 hours a week. What’s more, many of them have a child—or children—a factor that more than doubles the amount of money it takes to make a living wage.

During this presidential election season, there’s been talk about increasing the federal minimum wage over a five-year period, presumably starting in 2017. Sen. Bernie Sanders favors increasing it to $15, while Hillary Clinton supports a $12 hourly wage. (It’s currently $7.25 an hour).

But back to California, where lawmakers face the public taking the issue into their own hands at the polls. State law allows for proponents to withdraw the initiative should they come to a compromise. But that has to happen before the ballot is finalized in June.

The initiative calls for a dollar increase each year over the next five years. The question is whether lawmakers can mollify both the labor group and the business community, who consider the measure a savior for the working class and a job killer, respectively.

From our perspective, it’s clear the recent bump to $10 was not adequate. The data from MIT show that workers in the state need to be paid at least $12.34 an hour to get by. Getting Californians to that living-wage threshold seems like a good compromise, so long as it happens in the short-term. The increase is not a panacea for the state’s poverty issues, but it would be a step in the right direction.