Far from spending a spare moment browsing for beautiful furniture, too many of our fellow Oregonians are scraping together the resources for their weekly groceries. For this month’s rent. For child care, or an unexpected appliance repair. Some of our hardest-working neighbors can be holding down multiple jobs and still find themselves among the 16% of Oregonians living in poverty or the 37% who are incapable of paying for essential living expenses without assistance.
In terms of buying power, the national minimum wage peaked in 1968 and has been losing ground ever since, leading to record levels of income inequality that experts believe threatens our economy. We at The Joinery believe that a failure to tackle this issue hurts both businesses and our most vulnerable citizens alike.
We know this is a complex issue. Businesses that raise wages unilaterally are at a competitive disadvantage, so such increases need to be mandated and enforced across the board. At the same time, regions within the state vary greatly in their economies and resources, and thus should be allowed to craft their own minimum wage policies — which is not the case today.
Because our current Oregon law does not allow cities or regions to set their own minimum wage above the state level, Portland is the only major city on the West Coast that has not taken action to increase its minimum wage in recent years. San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle – among many others – have already seen fit to phase in increases to their minimum wages to as high as $15 an hour by the end of the decade. They realize that doing so is both good for low-wage workers and businesses alike.
The most common argument against increasing the minimum wage is that it would increase unemployment. But the experience of other municipalities that have increased their minimum wages in recent years has not borne this out. Studies of wage hikes in places like Washington DC, San Francisco and Santa Fe has shown a minimal impact on unemployment in low-wage sectors – but has provided great benefit to full-time workers, which in turn helps our local economies.
We urge our state legislature to take the lead in formulating a policy that phases in higher minimum wages in a way that helps low wage workers, allows flexibility for businesses to adapt, and addresses different needs among urban and rural communities. Yes, this is a complex issue. But complexity is not an excuse for inaction.