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Oregon's new minimum wage still not enough

As calls for a higher minimum wage grow louder around the country, Oregon’s wage floor quietly increased by 15 cents at the start of the new year. The increase will add $312 to the yearly income of a full-time minimum wage worker.

While the uptick in Oregon’s minimum wage is welcome, it still leaves too many working families unable to meet basic needs. An even higher wage floor would be good for workers and our state.

The increase that took effect Jan. 1 puts Oregon’s minimum wage at $9.10 per hour. The change is the result of a ballot measure, enacted by voters in 2002, requiring that the state’s minimum wage keep up with the cost of living.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy estimated that it would take at least a minimum wage of about $9.55 to lift a family of three with one parent working full-time out of poverty in 2014. This figure is based on the center’s projection of how much the federal poverty guidelines are likely to increase next year.

To achieve a secure, yet modest, living standard, families in Oregon need income that is at least two-and-a-half times the federal poverty level, according to analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. That would mean a wage of about $24 per hour for a single parent with two children.

Over the past year, fast-food workers in cities across the country have held one-day strikes in an effort to pressure the industry to raise wages to at least $15 an hour. These strikes have boosted efforts to raise the minimum wage.

A $15 minimum wage may soon become a reality for some workers in SeaTac, Wash. In November, voters in the city approved a ballot measure raising the minimum wage for hospitality and transportation workers to $15 an hour. Opponents, however, have sued to strike down the law.

And in nearby Seattle, the incoming mayor has convened a task force to study raising the city’s minimum wage up to $15 an hour.

Without specifying a figure, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has called for a discussion on raising the state’s minimum wage — already the nation’s highest. It is set to increase to $9.32 an hour in 2014.

The minimum wage is also going up in California. Earlier in the year, lawmakers enacted a bill raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016, getting there in two steps.

Oregon’s minimum wage isn’t likely to surpass the $10 mark until at least 2018. Unless inflation rises more rapidly than expected, it will be about five years before the state hits $10 per hour.

In 2002, Oregon voters rightly bumped up the state’s minimum wage and made sure it wasn’t eroded by inflation. Now another increase to the minimum wage would help many more working families make ends meet.

As workers across the country call for a higher wage floor, research shows that modest increases in the minimum wage do not dampen job creation, the main concern voiced by opponents of an increase.

“The weight of evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage,” concluded a recent report released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. The report reviewed two decades of research on the impact of minimum wage increases on employment.

The time may be right for state and local officials in Oregon to consider raising the minimum wage. A higher wage floor is an effective anti-poverty strategy, and it can be implemented without affecting the job market.

Jason Gettel is a policy analyst with Silverton-based Oregon Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit institute that analyzes tax and economic issues.

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