WASHINGTON – While Congress struggles with a proposal to raise the minimum wage, thousands of Maryland workers continue to wrestle with the area’s high cost of living.
Rents in Maryland are the ninth-most expensive in the nation, according to a report released this month by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which said things are tough all over for minimum-wage workers.
The report said that in order to make rent on a two-bedroom apartment affordable for 40-hour-a-week workers in most states, the minimum wage would have to more than double, from the current $5.15 an hour to $11.08.
In Maryland, a minimum-wage worker would have to put in 103 hours a week at the current rate to afford an apartment, or earn $13.25 per hour for 40 hours of work, the study said. It is even worse in Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where workers would have to put in a 122-hour week or earn $15.77 an hour.
The study, “Out of Reach, 1999,” based its figures on Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates of fair-market rents and the guideline that housing should account for no more than 30 percent of a family budget.
Congress could take up a bill as early as this week to raise the minimum wage — but nowhere near the levels that advocates for the poor say is needed. While Democrats are pushing for a $1-an-hour increase over the next two years, Republicans have stalled the bill in both houses and are talking about a more moderate increase.
“You can’t put a decent roof on someone’s head for $5.15 an hour,” said Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., a sponsor of the wage-hike bill.
Not everyone sees a wage hike as the magic solution. Barbara Wilkins, vice president of government relations for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said a minimum wage increase is unnecessary.
“You’re in a very tight labor market,” Wilkins said. “Most employers in Maryland aren’t paying minimum wage. They’re paying more” and an artificial increase would slow that trend, she said.
Many business groups oppose a federal wage hike and similar plans in local jurisdictions that would establish a “living wage.”
John Doyle, director of public relations for the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C., said legislated wage increases of any size would hurt low-income workers instead of helping them.
“By increasing wages, you’re forcing the employer to recoup that cost,” Doyle said. “They will shave hours, force increased productivity and displace workers.
“The least-skilled worker, the one most likely to need this help, is the most likely to lose her job,” Doyle said.
He said mandated higher wages would encourage a new set of better- qualified applicants, including college students and stay-at-home parents attracted by the idea of making some spending money, to take jobs from illiterate and otherwise unskilled workers. Those students and other new hires would then take the money back into already affluent households, Doyle said.
The Employment Policies Institute supports targeted programs such as local earned income tax credits that he said would go only to those who really need assistance.
Using Census Bureau data, the institute found that 91 percent of Maryland’s minimum wage workers live alone, with relatives or with a working spouse. That leaves only 9 percent as sole earners in families with children.
“You’d be surprised at who is working for minimum wage,” Wilkins said. “It tends to be the young, not those who are self-supporting, and it tends to be for a limited time. Presumably, experience and job skills will improve and they’ll get a raise on their own.”
But the NLIHC said that for those workers who are trying to house and feed a family on minimum wage, a higher wage is desperately needed.
“The wage rate of ordinary workers should at least assure that they can afford to house themselves and their families,” said NLIHC President Sheila Crowley.
Doyle and others insist that increasing pay across the board will inflate housing costs, keeping quality rentals out of the reach of the poor.
“No wage increase could change that,” Doyle said. “You can’t mandate wealth.”