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Poverty is Not Natural

May 9, 2018

reptomstevens

I was privileged to report S.40, a bill that proposes to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, on the floor of the Vermont House of Representatives. This long-awaited report and vote was important, as it was the result of a deep dive by the Senate, a summer study committee, our state economists and our committee, General, Housing and Military Affairs. It was also controversial, for a number of reasons. What I found, not unanimously or universally, is that support for raising the wage was related to one’s experience with poverty, and with working for a poverty wage.

I realize that calling the minimum wage a poverty wage can be offensive to some, especially to those who pay that wage, or fight to keep the wage low. Poverty is a word, concept and reality that we don’t like to talk about, and when we do, we somehow find a way to blame the poor for their poverty, as if they are in complete control of their fate and future when they are trapped in a minimum wage job.

For some, working for this wage extinguishes hope. For some it is the first or second rung on a ladder toward self-sufficiency. But until then, people must rely on benefits like child care subsidies, food stamps, the earned income tax credit and Medicaid, none of which provide all the services a family in poverty may need.

I supported the increase because I know well the effects of poverty on the health of a family, and how it affects a person through their whole life. Our research considered as many facets of the impact of raising the wage across six years, and, by a majority along party lines, we felt the benefits of raising the wage, especially at this slow rate, were far healthier for Vermonters than not raising it. This included conversation with small business owners, representatives of large businesses, economists, and, yes, Vermonters who struggle to make ends meet because they can’t work enough hours at a poverty wage to do so.

It is easy to say that there will be winners and losers, and there may be. But we anticipate that the fears and concerns expressed by the several sectors who shared them with us will not be as grievous as they expect. Reports from other cities and states that have increased their minimum wage — and the real life experience here in Vermont over the last four years — have shown that prices have not increased, jobs have not been lost, and those that have received a higher wage have shopped more, paid more bills and used less benefits. It other words, the increases have worked as planned.

The first, best way to alleviate poverty is to give people more money. We can have all the benefit programs we want, but if people don’t know they exist, or don’t use them, or if we don’t fund them appropriately, or make them difficult to attain, then they won’t do their job. Paying people more adds esteem, financial flexibility and up to $250 million into the economy.

Which is not to say that the concerns were ignored or denigrated by the committee. With an increase of this size, sectors including small businesses or human services worried about needing to raise prices to pay for their low wage employees, or a lack of funding to provide services to Vermonters we have been vigilant to protect. By the same token, many of these low wage jobs go unfilled because at the current low level of pay offered, and would be more easily filled at a higher wage. Studies have clearly shown that a higher wage brings more job stability, a higher loyalty, and lengthier terms of service.

My floor report was lengthy, and you may read it here. The discussion on the floor lasted over three hours, and I am pleased to say it was civil and thorough. Addressing poverty is never easy in this building, or in our community, and I am proud to have worked with a diverse crowd of legislators, advocates and citizens to shape a bill that was supported by a majority of senators and representatives.

And while we have received word, in no uncertain terms, that the administration will veto both this bill and the one that would provide many of the same people affected by low wages an opportunity to take advantage of a paid family leave program. That’s too bad, because it is exactly this segment of our population that needs the most economic help, now and in the future.

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