AUGUSTA — The gap between wages paid in Maine and what it costs to live here is widening to catastrophic levels, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Maine People’s Alliance.
While both sides of the political spectrum agree a problem exists, there is little agreement about solutions.
To afford necessities such as housing, food, transportation, health care and child care, two working adults with two young children in Maine must net $80,000 a year just to make ends meet. For a single working adult, a liveable income must exceed $32,000 a year.
Ben Chin, political engagement director for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, said during a press conference Tuesday at the State House that the Alliance for a Just Society’s report, “Broken Bootstraps: Falling Behind on Full-Time Work,” isn’t about the poor asking for more. It’s about people doing everything they can and still falling behind.
“This is totally backwards,” he said.
Marie Pineo of Bangor is a single mother of twin sons who lives on a fixed income because of a heart condition that forces her to work part time. She is featured in the report and spoke at Tuesday’s press conference.
“To find a permanent job that suits the requirements of my disabilities is impossible,” said Pineo. “I need a living wage so I don’t have to visit a food pantry every week and forgo church to get there.”
Even though Pineo earned only $7,000 last year, she qualifies for only $7 a month in housing assistance — and her rent is set to rise by $147 a month on April 1 because of lost federal funding for the Bangor Housing Authority.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said. “All I need is a living wage.”
About half of all job openings in Maine in 2012 paid less than $15.40 an hour, which is what it takes to support a single adult, and nearly 90 percent of job openings paid less than $28.92 an hour, the living wage for a single adult with two children. For those latter jobs, according to the report, there were an average of 39 applicants for every opening.
During the alliance’s press conference about the report Tuesday, Sen. John Patrick, D-Rumford, the Senate chairman of the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee, cited economic data that shows Maine’s economy isn’t growing even though those in other New England states are. In 2011, according to Mike Allen, Maine’s associate commissioner of tax policy, Maine’s economy as measured by gross domestic product shrank slightly while the national economy grew by 1.5 percent and New England grew 1.8 percent. In addition, Maine ranked last in the country in personal income growth in 2011.
“To be blunt, there are not enough good-paying jobs to go around,” said Patrick. “This is unacceptable and the Legislature has a responsibility to do something about it. … We are not asking for a hand-out for these hard working Mainers. We know, and you know, they want to get back to work.”
Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, who co-chairs the economic development committee with Patrick, said that in addition to bringing economic development to Maine, part of the solution is tailoring the state’s social services in a way that encourages recipients to work toward independence.
“We need to make sure our state assistance programs create pathways to prosperity and that we don’t allow the current recession to damage the future of our state,” said Herbig.
Chin, of the Maine People’s Alliance, suggested four measures that would help close the skills gap outlined in the report: increasing the minimum wage; expanding access to health care, including accepting the Medicaid expansion in the federal Affordable Care Act; investing in early childhood programs that would allow parents more affordable child care options; and instituting a “fair tax system.”
Senate Republican Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said raising the minimum wage would likely benefit mostly young people just entering the workforce while hurting Maine’s prospects for attracting new businesses. He added that the situation is much the same with any expansion of Medicaid, given that Maine is already more generous than many states in the benefits it offers.
“We need to make sure we don’t become an outlier compared to other states,” said Thibodeau. “The appropriate place for the discussion about the minimum wage is at the national level. We’ve got to be extremely cautious.”
As for the tax code, Thibodeau said cutting taxes for high earners also would have a detrimental effect on attracting jobs, though he agreed with Chin about the importance of investing in early childhood programs.
“If we have a well-trained workforce, people will take advantage and invest in our state,” said Thibodeau.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, agreed. According to information provided by his office, the Legislature over the years has already pushed the majority of Mainers into the highest income tax bracket.
“I think Mainers want balance in our economic policy, not the hard-left ideas of a controversial, liberal activist group,” said Fredette in a prepared statement. “I’m very open-minded with my Democratic colleagues, but a billion-dollar tax increase is too extreme. Unfortunately, I think this liberal group is pushing Democratic lawmakers so far to the left that they’re becoming unreasonable and out of touch with the average Mainer.”