Western New Yorkers should enthusiastically support legislation to raise New York's minimum wage to $8.50 per hour from $7.25 and index it to inflation. The Buffalo Niagara region, which has been hit hard by the shift from manufacturing jobs to low-wage service jobs, has much to gain from this bill.
Buffalo Niagara does not suffer from unusually high unemployment. Our unemployment rate was 7.9 percent as of March 2012 -- well below the national average (8.2 percent) and New York State average (8.5 percent). But our median income lags well behind. In 2010 the median income was $46,420 in Buffalo Niagara, $50,046 in the United States and $54,148 in New York State.
In short, too many people in this region are working low-wage jobs. Several years ago we published a look at some of the most common low-wage occupations in Western New York. We found more than 125,000 people in jobs that provide a median income of less than $20,000 per year -- jobs such as child care worker, retail salesperson and home care aide. Another 40,000 workers earned a median wage of under $23,000 per year in jobs such as teacher's assistant, home health aide and janitor. More than 50,000 more were earning a median wage of less than $26,000 in jobs such as bank teller and rehab counselor. In all, these workers represented more than one-third of our local work force.
Pundits often point to education as the key to overcoming poverty. But education mainly determines which people live in poverty, not how many. To put it another way, even if every person in Western New York earned a doctorate degree, we would still need more than 215,000 people to serve as home health aides, teacher's assistants, security guards and so forth. A cashier with a doctorate makes the same salary as one without a high school diploma.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage often claim that it will kill jobs. One of the best studies of this question, by David Card and Alan Krueger, examined what happened to fast food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania when New Jersey raised its minimum wage while Pennsylvania did not. The economists found that -- far from killing jobs -- raising the minimum wage actually increased employment in the New Jersey restaurants.
Indexing the wage rate to inflation is simple common sense. Ten other states have done it already. Why should we let inflation erode the value of the minimum wage each year and then catch up at sporadic intervals? In the late 1960s, the federal minimum wage was worth more than $10 in today's dollars.
Society cannot thrive when a huge portion of our work force is not earning enough to enjoy a decent standard of living. Americans overwhelmingly support the idea that if you work full time, you should not have to live in poverty. It is time to raise the minimum wage.
Lou Jean Fleron and Sam Magavern are co-directors of the Partnership for the Public Good.