When most people think of an employee who works for minimum wage, they conjure images of young students who still depend on Mom and Dad for their basic needs and have a part-time job only to earn extra cash for the things that they want but certainly don’t need.

The reality of minimum-wage work is far different.

In fact, 88 percent of minimum-wage employees are 20 years of age or older, and more than one-third are over the age of 40. Fifty-six percent of minimum-wage workers are women. More than half of those who earn minimum wage (55 percent) work full time while earning, on average, more than half of their family’s income.

I am a university student, and after the death of my only supporting parent in 2009, when I was 19, I became independent, relying mainly on my financial aid and what work study and part-time jobs I could get in order to make ends meet.

Last fall, in addition to being a full-time student dealing with a chronic illness, I worked three part-time jobs, on average totaling between 30 and 35 hours per week. This amounted to $1,000 a month in income, part of which was from work study.

My financial aid simply isn’t enough to cover all of my expenses. This year, I will be graduating and will no longer be receiving financial aid to help support myself. I fear not being able to find a job that pays a wage that allows me not only to continue to support myself, but also to begin repaying my substantial amount of student loans.

As it stands, the federal minimum wage – $7.25 an hour – has not increased since 2009.

If the federal minimum wage had kept up with the rate of inflation since 1968, it would be $10.77 an hour today.

If the federal minimum wage had kept up with the level of workers’ productivity since 1968, it would be $18.67 today.

If the federal minimum wage had matched the wage growth of the country’s richest 1 percent, it would be $28.

In 1959, Maine established a state hourly minimum wage of $1. The buying power of today’s state minimum wage, $7.50, is roughly equivalent to the minimum 55 years ago.

When most people consider the socioeconomic outcome of raising the minimum wage, they think about the negative effects it could have on small business, employment and consumer spending.

Yet again, the reality is far different.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 57 percent of small-business owners support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, and the vast majority already pay their workers more than the current minimum wage. Since the 2009 federal minimum-wage increase, more than $5.5 billion has been generated by consumer spending.

Research shows that minimum-wage increases do not lead to job loss even in times of high employment. For example, states that raised their minimum wage above the federal $5.15 in the early 2000s saw stronger employment and small-business trends than states that didn’t.

But why does any of this matter to Maine?

In order for a single adult to be able to support themselves in Portland – this means having housing, medical care, transportation and food – they would need to make $20,863 a year. The current minimum wage in Maine of $7.50 an hour amounts to approximately $15,600 annually.

This is not a living wage. It’s barely enough to keep one person above the federal poverty level, much less one person who is the primary provider for his or her family. If the minimum wage were increased to $10.10, the annual pay for a full-time employee would amount to $21,080 per year – enough to live on.

No matter which way you slice it, low-wage workers in Maine are not receiving the pay they deserve, or the pay they need to live on. An increase in the minimum wage is long overdue.

Maine can and should lead the nation on this issue by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Mayor Michael Brennan’s proposal to raise Portland’s minimum wage is a great step forward, but we can’t do this piecemeal. All workers across the state deserve to be paid a fair wage. It’s an investment not only in Maine’s economy, but in its people as well.

— Special to the Press Herald