AUGUSTA — Since our founding as a nation, a core tenet of the American Dream has been that with hard work, anyone can achieve economic security and opportunity for themselves and their families.

Mainers who work 40 hours a week should earn enough to keep themselves and their families out of poverty, and for decades the federal and state minimum wages have been essential to effecting progress toward that modest objective.

But today Maine’s minimum wage has less buying power than it did when the state minimum wage was first implemented. That was 1959. As a result, individuals and families who rely on minimum-wage earnings to make ends meet are falling further and further behind.

Since 1959, individual productivity has increased, the workforce has become more skilled, the population has achieved higher levels of educational attainment, but the wages of those earning the least have dropped.

These workers are predominantly middle-aged, many responsible for providing for their families. Unlike the stereotype of a teenager in a part-time job, the average age of a minimum-wage earner is 35 years old, and one-third have children.

If a minimum-wage earner works full time and doesn’t take a single day off, she will make $15,600 a year. With one child, those earnings put the family below the federal poverty level

Absent federal and state changes, cities across the country are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Here in Maine, thanks to recent efforts by the city of Portland, thousands of families relying on minimum-wage earnings could rise out of poverty. If the Portland City Council’s vote stands, the minimum wage there will increase to $10.68 by 2017 and index to inflation thereafter.

This is a good first step for Portland, but the rest of the state needs to follow suit. Maine’s statewide minimum wage is $7.50, a mere 25 cents above the federal minimum, and hasn’t budged since 2009.

Any discussion of the minimum wage must necessarily be a conversation about inflation. We index Social Security, the salaries of Maine legislators and many other sources of income to inflation, but not the wages of those struggling to stay out of poverty.

Prices have gone up, but wages haven’t kept pace. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $7.50 in 2009 had the same buying power as $8.31 today.

Decades of national wage data for all earners tell the same discouraging story: Real wages are flat or falling. The Portland City Council’s plan to index the minimum wage to inflation is crucial because it not only helps workers now, but also ensures that they will not be left behind in the future.

A low and stagnant minimum wage isn’t an issue just for low-wage workers; it’s detrimental to every sector of the economy. Consumer spending makes up 70 percent of our nation’s economic activity, so when part of our labor force doesn’t earn enough to cover basic needs – let alone have disposable income to spend – it inhibits economic growth, to the detriment of businesses.

It’s not only about how much is in the pockets of working Mainers; retailers, restaurants and other businesses suffer because fewer customers can afford to buy their products. Landlords, gas stations and utilities may incur more late and unpaid bills as working people can’t afford to cover all of their expenses.

When Maine families aren’t spending, everyone loses.

Across America, from Seattle to Chicago, local and state minimum-wage increases are providing real world evidence crucial in this debate, dispelling the gloom-and-doom predictions of opponents.

Study after study shows that the benefits of moderate minimum-wage increases are substantial, while negative impacts on cities or states are negligible or non-existent.

When economists analyze the cross-border effects of increases to the minimum wage by comparing unemployment levels between states with different minimum wages, they find little to no job loss.

In Maine, 42.5 percent of families under the poverty line have at least one member working. Our legally mandated minimum wage should not trap full-time workers in poverty. The state should build on what Portland has started, raise the minimum wage so Mainers earn enough to grow our consumption-driven economy.

We must acknowledge that every year the minimum wage stays the same, the buying power of those working for it decreases. Workers in the 21st century do not deserve to work longer hours but receive less compensation than the generations of workers who have come before.

Raising the minimum wage is the first step we can take toward ensuring that Mainers are not just living to work, but working for a living that will support them and their families.