The new report by the Alliance for a Just Society, “Families Out of Balance: How a living wage helps families move from debt to stability,” provides sobering data about how much Mainers must earn just to make ends meet.
Simply put, wages in Maine are insufficient to cover the cost of living – and even though the recession is officially over, too many people remain under- or un-employed. The Alliance estimates that in order to cover the cost of groceries, housing, heating, and transportation, plus save for retirement and pay taxes, a single working adult in Maine needs to earn $15.82 an hour. For a single-earner family with two children, a living wage is $28.86 an hour. This living wage doesn’t include little extras like eating out occasionally, making home improvements, taking a vacation, etc. The report authors calculated the cost of living a basic 20th-century middle-class lifestyle in Maine: housing, food, healthcare, and saving 10 percent of income for a rainy day. And they conclude that for many Maine working families, this lifestyle is out of reach.
Here’s a dose of reality: while the statewide unemployment figure is 5.4%, the recession hasn’t ended yet for many Mainers. Four out of five new jobs in Maine are located in greater Portland. Unemployment remains above 7% in Franklin, Aroostook, Washington, Piscataquis, and Somerset Counties. Since the official unemployment figure counts people who are working part-time as employed, it does not disclose the fact that Maine has 40,300 people- the nation’s 6th highest percentage -working part-time who would work full-time if they could.
And for far too many of those who are employed, the wages they earn are far from livable.
A Mainer working full-time for the state minimum wage of $7.50 per hour grosses $15,600 annually – less than half of what it takes to make ends meet, stay warm, and retire someday.
Some commentators argue that the minimum wage does not warrant policymakers’ attention, as it’s just a starting wage earned by teenage fast-food workers. They’re wrong. More than 23 percent of workers in Maine’s Second Congressional District would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, the highest of any CD in New England. That’s 60,000 people in a region encompassing more than 11 of Maine’s 16 counties. Almost a third of women in the Second District would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. These women aren’t working for “pin money” – 62 percent of Maine women who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage have no partner supplementing their income, as pointed out in a recent report by the Maine Women’s Policy Center. Statewide, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 would benefit more than 110,000 working Mainers.
Raising the minimum wage is just a good start. The long-term fix for our broken economy is closer to the vision the Alliance for a Just Society articulates: an economy where people who work for a living can cover the necessities of life, care for their children, and put away a little money for a rainy day. Senator Collins, a Northern Maine native, said this week that the unemployment figure is “misleading.” She’s right. Huge areas of Maine – the small rural towns, the working coast, the state’s wooded and agricultural interior – have been left behind by the so-called “recovery.”
Maine needs leaders who will work to bridge growing income inequality, improve the standard of living, reduce personal and family debt, and enable Mainers to save to invest in better lives for themselves and their families. That is the only way to restore balance and enable working Mainers to move from debt to stability.
Don Cookson of WZON-AM’s The Pulse Morning Program, interviewed Christy about the Alliance for a Just Society report. To listen to the interview, click here.
CORRECTION: This blog post was revised on January 3, 2015 to clarify references to the minimum wage data cited from Oxfam.