By Ramona du Houx
The latest in a series of reports, authored by the national Alliance for a Just Society, on the divide between what Maine workers need to earn to afford basic necessities and what available jobs in Maine actually pay was released today.
The report finds that a living wage (enough money to cover food, housing, health care, utilities, household expenses and to save for the future) for a single adult with no children working full-time in Maine would be $15.82 an hour. Two adults, both working and with two children, would have to earn $19.49 an hour to make ends meet. The minimum wage in Maine is currently only $7.50 an hour.
The report also discusses the problem of debt loads, which aren't included in the living wage calculations and which disproportionately affects low-income families. Shawn Levesque's story, a Lewiston resident who struggled to make ends meet and pay off his student loans while working a string of low-wage and often temporary jobs, is highlighted in the report.
"Facing my remaining $17,000 of student debt without a job, at the age of 36, I moved back in with my mother just to have a place to live," said Levesque. "I have no idea what people who aren't as fortunate as I am would do if placed in a similar situation. It's not possible to afford to live on your own in Maine on the minimum wage, even without any sort of loan debt. Our safety net system needs to be improved both here and nationwide. Without my mother being willing to take me in, there is no way I would have been able to make it back onto my feet."
Jim Wellehan, the owner of Lamey Wellehan Shoes, who was recently cited by the White House for his commitment to his employees and his advocacy for fair wages, said the problems of income inequality run deep.
"The reason I've been speaking out on these issues is that they're fundamentally important to our society. This report, once again, shows just how far we have to go," said Wellehan. "Corporations must pay fair taxes, CEOs of corporations much take modest salaries, a reasonable multiple of the bottom person in their organization, and those at the bottom should be making enough to live."
Christy Daggett, a policy analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy, explained that the effects of low wages are felt the hardest in rural areas of the state.
"More than 5 years after the Great Recession ended, unemployment remains above 7 percent in Aroostook, Franklin, Piscataquis, Somerset, and Washington Counties," said Daggett. "More than 23 percent of the workers in Maine's Second Congressional District – 60,000 workers – earn the minimum wage, the highest per capita of all the CDs in New England. Raising Maine's minimum wage would improve the lives of more than 110,000 working Mainers. We can take another major step by accepting federal funds available to provide health care for 70,000 Mainers, help to drive down heath care costs, add $500 million annually to our economy, and support 4,400 jobs."
According to Danna Hayes, Director of Public Policy for the Maine Women's Policy Center, Maine women are also disproportionately affected.
"There are a lot of myths about who is being paid the minimum wage. The reality is that more than six in ten minimum wage workers in our state are women. And 85 percent of Maine workers who would be impacted by a raise in the minimum wage are over 20 years old," said Hayes. "That's why Maine women and our families need the minimum wage to be raised now and we need it to be indexed to inflation so the purchasing power of minimum wage workers keeps pace with the larger economy."
A bill to increase Maine's minimum wage was passed by the Maine Legislature last year, but was vetoed by Governor Paul LePage.
In addition to increasing the minimum wage and promoting greater access to affordable health care to help Maine families make ends meet, the report recommends that the state and federal government crack down on predatory and deceptive lending practices and make new investments in higher education and public assistance programs in order to help more Mainers reach a living wage.