“This fight for $15 is about more than money, it’s about being able to live.”
— Reverend Dr. William Barber III, on Medium.com
Reverend Barber gets to the heart of the matter. While opponents of the minimum wage argue that raising it is detrimental to business and to society more broadly, this simple fact remains: the failure to raise the minimum wage impedes workers’ right to live.
Documenting that minimum-wage and low-wage workers cannot afford basic human needs such as housing, food, health care, and other essential elements is easy; but today I want to focus on child care which doesn’t often get the attention it deserves. Without access to affordable, quality child care, low-wage workers need to make difficult decisions—to trust their child to care of uncertain quality (or even safety) or not to work at all even though their family needs the income.
The Economic Policy Institute has released new state data on the cost of child care across the United States. In Pennsylvania, the average cost of infant care is $11,842 a year, which is $987 per month for one child. The cost for a four-year-old in care is slightly less: $9,773 a year or $814/month.
While there is often a lot of discussion among families and in the media about the cost of sending your child to college and how to save for such an investment, there is less conversation about the cost of child care. Yet in Pennsylvania, infant care costs just $2,692 less a year than in-state tuition at a public four-year college—that is 81.5% of college costs. Infant care even costs more than the average cost of housing for a year—8.1% more ($11,842 compared to $10,879 for housing).
A minimum-wage worker earning $7.25/hour in Pennsylvania would have to work full time (40 hours a week) for nearly 10 months to be able to afford the average cost of infant care for one child.
That is 78.5% of their yearly earnings.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set the affordability limit for child care at 7% of one’s income. That is, child care is considered affordable if it costs no more than 7% of a family’s income. But 78.5% is a long way from 7%. Even a two-parent family with both parents earning the minimum wage puts child care wildly out of range—this family would need to spend 39.3% of its family income on child care. Add in the cost of care for another child and the expense is impossible.
But, the opponents of a higher minimum wage will argue: aren’t all minimum wage workers teenagers?
Not so. We did an analysis of the two million or more workers who would benefit from a $15/hour minimum wage increase in Pennsylvania. We found that 90% of workers are aged 20 or older, meaning only 10% are teenagers. Nearly one-quarter of workers who would benefit (24.2%) are parents. Twelve percent of those who would benefit are single parents.
Pennsylvania does have a subsidized child care program called Child Care Works, with 120,131 children receiving subsidized care in May 2019. However, the waiting list for this program has about 4,700 children on it, with many more in need who have not applied.
Despite the high costs of child care for Pennsylvania’s families, child care workers themselves struggle in poverty as well. Child care workers—who are nearly all women and disproportionately women of color—in Pennsylvania would need to pay 48.0% of their income in order to put their own child in infant care.
A new EPI report on the costs of child care and early education in California exposes the root causes of these problems. The basic problem is that the amount of money families can afford to pay for child care is not enough to pay for quality care and fair wages for child care workers. Lack of government investment in early child care is hurting Pennsylvania’s families.
The first thing Pennsylvania needs to do is raise the minimum wage. Next, we need to invest more in early childhood education.
Over the past six months, public discussion about raising Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has heated up. As part of his executive budget, Governor Wolf proposed an immediate raise of the state minimum wage to $12 hour, with $.50 increases every year until the wage reaches $15/hour in 2025. Governor Wolf had made similar proposals in the past and Representative Patty Kim has introduced similar legislation for several years as well, to no avail. This year, however, due to outside pressure from groups and citizens across the state, this policy change had more traction. Even so, the budget was still passed with no change to the minimum wage, despite consensus building among some Republicans that we need a hike in the minimum wage.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly has not raised the minimum wage in over 13 years. Since 2009, that represents a loss of over $3,000 in annual earnings due to inflation. All of Pennsylvania’s surrounding states have increased their minimum wage while ours has remained at the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour.
As EPI’s new child care report reveals, our current minimum wage is woefully inadequate for parents of young children.
Reverend Barber is right. This is about the right to live. To afford our most basic needs. To be able to take care of our children. And to live and work with dignity. Our current minimum wage does not allow people to do that.
It’s time to #RaiseTheWage.