As the city of Portland debates the merits of bringing the minimum wage closer to an actual living wage, it’s worth considering the impact of increased income on the ability of our struggling neighbors to put food on their tables.

Income cannot be separated from food security, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “access, at all times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.”

Unfortunately, too many of our community members lack such security, and they face hunger.

Put simply, increasing the minimum wage is a brilliant strategy to address hunger. This is especially important in Maine, which, over the last 10 years, has experienced the largest increase in hunger of any state in the nation (with the exception of Missouri).

Unfortunately, we cannot expect any action soon from the federal or Maine state government to increase our current, out-of-date wage levels. To our city’s credit, Portland is acting while others wait for the problem of income inequality to solve itself.

Under the Portland mayor’s proposal, the minimum wage would initially increase from the current $7.50 to $9.50 an hour, with additional increases scheduled over the next few years. This means that someone working full time would see her or his weekly income rise from $300 to $380.

In my role as director of the Cumberland County Food Security Council, I have seen the difference that a few dollars a week make for our most vulnerable families. An extra $80 a week can make a major difference for many at the grocery store or farmers market and in turn have a significant impact on the healthy development of a child.

Too many of our neighbors are struggling financially, as evidenced by public school family income data. During the 2013-14 school year, about 50 percent of students in Portland were eligible for free meals. This means that every other student in the Portland Public Schools – a total of 3,510 children – lived in a household with an annual income of less than $30,000 for a family of four.

And recent data for Portland (December 2014) lists 4,156 children under age 18 living in households using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, often referred to as “food stamps.” Two adults with two children could both work full time at minimum wage, and the family would still be eligible for SNAP and free school meals.

For many, hunger is clearly a threat, which the minimum wage was, in fact, designed to fight. Established in 1938, the federal minimum was part of comprehensive labor “legislation to end starvation wages and intolerable hours,” as President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the time.

Unfortunately, 76 years later, the federal (or state) minimum wage has not kept pace with the cost of living. In fact, the current minimum federal hourly wage of $7.25 has not changed since 2009. Maine’s $7.50 rate was also established in 2009.

The Portland City Council’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 includes subsequent increases over time up to $10.68. While this is not a living wage, as determined by MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, it is progress toward the life every working family deserves.

With rents for two-bedroom apartments averaging more than $1,000 and utility bills increasing, many Portlanders struggle to make ends meet over the course of the month despite working full time in minimum-wage jobs. Unfortunately, this struggle often ends in cutting back on healthy food purchases.

These cutbacks affect health. For example, a 2014 Atlantic Monthly article notes that hospitalizations for low blood sugar spike for low-income individuals at the end of the month, a function of running out of money for food in the monthly bill cycle. The crippling cost of the medical impact of poor nutrition, in turn, leads to the continuing spiral of poverty.

While there are details being worked out in the City Council’s Finance Committee, the simple equation is that an increase in the minimum wage will help hardworking Portland families be more economically secure. It means more dollars to pay rent, to pay medical bills and to buy enough to adequately feed their families.

 


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