Opinion: After 25 years of stagnation, it’s time to raise the minimum wage

The president of Philadelphia City Council makes the case for why state legislators must finally make progress on this key threshold.

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For the all-too-many Pennsylvanians struggling to provide for themselves and their families, 2024 must be the year that our elected leaders in Harrisburg finally take action to increase the minimum wage, which has not risen above $7.25 an hour since 2009. Doing so – as all of our neighboring states have already done – or permitting the City of Philadelphia to do so at the local level will help to alleviate poverty in Pennsylvania and ensure that every worker receives a fair, family-sustaining wage.

Nobody reading these words needs to be reminded that Philadelphia, with a poverty rate that remains above 20%, has consistently been called “the poorest big city in America” – a label that has stuck despite steady economic improvements over the last decade.

As countless reports have shown, our city’s economic gains over the past 15 years have not been evenly shared across all neighborhoods and communities, leading to what many call “a tale of two cities.” Recently published data reveals that while roughly 1 in 8 white households in Philadelphia experience poverty, 1 in 4 African American households are living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, 33% of Hispanic households in Philadelphia have incomes below the poverty level – the highest of any ethnic group. While white, Asian and Hispanic households have seen median household income rise by more than 20% since 2010, African American families’ median income increased by just 5.7% over the same period.

Even a cursory review of the math shows that Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is wholly inadequate for supporting the needs of working Pennsylvanians and their families. According to the Living Wage Calculator, a tool created by MIT professor Amy K. Glassmeier to calculate the wage necessary in different states to pay for basic necessities, the breadwinner in a two-parent, two-child household must earn more than five times the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to make ends meet. In higher-cost localities like Philadelphia, a minimum-wage paycheck would be stretched even further. In fact, Philadelphia was found to have the fourth-lowest “real minimum wage” of all American cities, according to a recent SmartAsset study, meaning that our city is among the most difficult places in the country for minimum-wage workers to afford basic necessities. Nobody working a full-time job should have to struggle to make ends meet and raising Pennsylvania’s outdated minimum wage is a matter of basic fairness for working families in our commonwealth. 

Increasing the wage to at least $15 per hour – a figure already reached in New York and New Jersey, and which will be reached in Maryland and Delaware by 2025 – and tying automatic increases to the rate of inflation will help ensure that hard-working Pennsylvanians can earn enough to support themselves and their families.

While many opponents will point to anticipated job losses and business closures in the event that employers are required to raise wages, other cities’ and states’ experiences after increasing the minimum wage have shown that these fears are not founded in the data.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has again proposed a minimum wage increase as a part of his budget address to the General Assembly and it is incumbent upon our elected leaders in Harrisburg to take up this proposal and ensure that every Pennsylvanian, regardless of their ZIP code or background, has access to family-sustaining employment and meaningful economic opportunity. Now is the time for our leaders in Harrisburg to take steps to improve the lives of working families in Philadelphia and across our commonwealth.

Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson, a former state representative, serves Philadelphia’s Second Council District, which includes parts of Center City, South Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia.

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