Op-ed: Elected leaders must act now to increase minimum wage

minimum wage
City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson speaks Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, at a news briefing in Point Breeze.
Jack Tomczuk

For the thousands of hard-working Pennsylvanians in Philadelphia and across our commonwealth who are struggling to provide for themselves and their families, 2024 must be the year that our elected leaders in Harrisburg take action to increase the minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage, as all of our neighboring states have already done – or permitting the City of Philadelphia to do so at the local level – will help to alleviate poverty in Pennsylvania and ensure that every worker receives a fair, family-sustaining wage.

Nobody reading these words needs to be reminded that Philadelphia, with a poverty rate that stubbornly remains higher than 20%, has consistently been called “the poorest big city in America.” That unfortunate label has stuck despite steady economic improvements over the last decade.

As countless reports have shown, our city’s economic gains over the past 15 years have not been evenly shared across all neighborhoods and communities, leading to what many call “a tale of two cities.” Recently published data reveals that while roughly 1 in 8 white households in Philadelphia experience poverty, 1 in 4 African American households are living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, 33% of Hispanic households in Philadelphia have incomes below the poverty level – the highest of any ethnic group. And while white, Asian, and Hispanic households saw median household income rise by more than 20% since 2010, African American families’ median income increased by just 5.7% over the same period.

Even a cursory review of the math shows that Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is wholly inadequate for supporting the needs of working Pennsylvanians and their families. According to the Living Wage Calculator, a tool created by MIT professor Amy K. Glassmeier to calculate the wage necessary in different states to pay for basic necessities, the breadwinner in a two-parent, two-child household must earn more than five-times the minimum wage to make ends meet. In higher-cost localities like Philadelphia, a minimum wage paycheck would be stretched even further. In fact, Philadelphia was found to have the fourth lowest “real minimum wage” of all American cities according to a recent SmartAsset study covered in the Inquirer, meaning that our city is among the most difficult places in the country for minimum wage workers to afford their basic necessities.

Nobody working a full-time job should have to struggle to make ends meet and raising Pennsylvania’s outdated minimum wage is a matter of basic fairness for working families in our commonwealth. Increasing the wage to at least $15 per hour and tying automatic increases to the rate of inflation will help ensure that hard-working Pennsylvanians can earn enough to support themselves and their families.

While many opponents will point to anticipated job losses and business closures in the event that employers are required to raise wages, other cities’ and states’ experiences after increasing the minimum wage have shown that these fears are not founded in the data.

In fact, all of our neighboring states have already taken steps to raise their minimum wage. And thanks to the leadership of advocates and elected leaders, working families in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York celebrated increases in the minimum wage that took effect on Jan. 1 of this year. Delaware has raised its minimum wage to $13.50 and a further increase to $15 is scheduled for 2025. An increase to $15 took effect in Maryland, where counties are also empowered to set a higher, local minimum. Workers in New Jersey are now entitled to at least $15.13. And in New York, the statewide minimum wage has increased to $15 while those in high-cost areas in and around New York City are entitled to a $16 wage. Importantly, New York and New Jersey will continue to increase their minimums in future years to account for the impact of inflation. Hard-working Pennsylvanians deserve the same level of support as other families throughout our region.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has again proposed a minimum wage increase as a part of his budget address to the General Assembly and it is incumbent upon our elected leaders in Harrisburg to take up this proposal and ensure that every Pennsylvanian, regardless of their zip code or background, has access to family-sustaining employment and meaningful economic opportunity. Now is the time for our leaders in Harrisburg to take steps to improve the lives of working families in Philadelphia and across our commonwealth.

Philadelphia City Council President Kenyatta Johnson, a former Pennsylvania State Representative, represents Philadelphia’s Second Council District, which includes parts of Center City, South Philadelphia, and Southwest Philadelphia. Keep up with Council at phlcouncil.com