Charles N. Hall Jr. is chairman of Working Families United for New Jersey, Inc.
I READ with disappointment Record Columnist Brigid Harrison’s description of political machinations about Ballot Question 2 (“The Legislature should set minimum wage,” Sept 1), where voters will be asked this November whether to raise New Jersey’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour and allow for annual adjustment based on the consumer price index.
Why does the political back-and-forth about how we got to a minimum-wage ballot question to amend the state constitution matter? Shouldn’t the hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents who are struggling to pay for the roof over their heads and the food on their tables while earning the lowest base wage be the concern?
In New Jersey, the Legislature last voted to increase the minimum wage in 2005 from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour with a two-step process occurring in 2006 and 2007. Nineteen states have passed minimum-wage increases since New Jersey did so in 2005. When Congress raised the minimum wage in 2009, New Jersey’s increased by a dime to meet the federal minimum. Including that increase, New Jersey’s minimum wage has increased 10 cents in the last six years.
A good case study is Colorado in 2006. In that year, residents voted to amend their state constitution to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 (where it had been since 1997) to $6.85 an hour and permit an annual cost-of-living adjustment tied to the consumer price index. In 2013, Colorado’s minimum wage stands at $7.78. Over this six-year period, the minimum wage has increased 93 cents, an average increase of a little more than 15 cents per year.
According to New Jersey Policy Perspective’s report on the minimum wage, the vast majority of the 429,000 residents who would benefit from a minimum wage are over the age of 20 and one in four of these workers are parents.
Not right to stall
Given the options before the Legislature, this was the correct course of action. It was not right to wait any longer or allow the governor’s diluted alternative to become law. It is not right to ask those who earn the least among us, in jobs where often they are serving us, to wait for a wage increase while prices continually increased.
These workers need to be thought of for a pay increase every year, as the cost of goods and services increases. They cannot be thought of when the Legislature gets around to it once every decade or so. Ten other states, with diverse economies such as Florida, Ohio, Washington, Montana and Arizona, to cite a few, provide for an annual cost-of-living adjustment without any measurable harm to their state economies.
Despite having a cost of living that is 30 percent higher than the national average, New Jersey is among the states that are tied for the lowest minimum-wage rate in the nation. Further, low-wage workers are the most likely to spend any additional wage increase and pump that money directly back into the economy on things like groceries, clothes and basic necessities to support themselves and their families. The Chicago Federal Reserve Bank conducted a study in 2011 that estimates that for every dollar increase in the minimum wage, there is $2,800 in new consumer spending by that household the following year.
We have amended the state constitution to legalize both bingo games and casino gambling, to allow seniors and veterans to enjoy a guarantee of property-tax relief and to dedicate and rededicate tax money for specific purposes. Each was put to the people with the basic idea that residents should have a direct hand in the ultimate direction of the state.
Quality of life
Just as our federal Constitution is famously dedicated to “promote the general welfare,” our state constitution’s overarching goal is to ensure a basic standard and quality of life for residents. For the past 65 years, the people have amended it to ensure their own security. Amending it to guarantee a livable minimum wage is part and parcel of that tradition. The state constitution, after all, is about people, not process.
As Harrison herself states, if things cost more, workers should earn more. We should be more concerned about those who earn minimum wage making ends meet than the political brinksmanship of how it happened.
This Nov. 5, New Jersey voters have the ability to approve Ballot Question 2 to ensure a minimum wage increase and an annual cost-of-living adjustment.