The minimum wage should be a living wage. No one who works full time should live in poverty. The government should step in when the middle class is under threat.

We believe all those statements, so it would be logical to assume that we should also support Portland’s Question 1, raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. We’d like to, but we can’t.

Doubling the minimum wage in four years would be a transformative event in the local economy. Some of the impacts could be positive, such as workers who have more money to spend and less need for social services. But some of the consequences would almost certainly be negative, especially for middle-class small-business owners who are already struggling to get by.

Would the economic positives outweigh the negatives? Nobody knows, and that makes Question 1 too big a risk.

The proposed $15 minimum wage is not something that was calculated to meet local economic realities – it was developed as the focus of a national movement. The figure has been a rallying cry in cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, which have all passed $15-an-hour minimum wages for at least some of their workers, and there are bills in state legislatures that would also make $15 an hour their minimum.

While Portland shares some similarities with those cities – high cost of living, lack of affordable housing – it is also very different from them. Median family income in San Francisco is $77,700 a year. In Seattle, it’s $65,600. In Portland, the median household income is $44,458.

That’s important because economic researchers have found that an increased minimum wage does not have a negative effect on employment if it is no higher than 60 percent of the local median wage. In San Francisco, that figure would be $22.41 an hour. In Seattle, it would be $18.90 an hour. In Portland, $15 an hour would represent 83 percent of the local median wage, far more than the 60 percent target.

This year, the Portland City Council raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, effective Jan. 1. The city’s minimum wage would increase to $10.68 a year later and then increase automatically with inflation after that. That would give Portland the seventh- highest minimum wage in the country, at 47 percent of the median wage. That was a positive step, the effect of which has not been measured. Unfortunately, tipped workers were left behind, still getting only $3.75 an hour in base pay. We would support raising the guaranteed wage for tipped workers as a second step in the right direction.

We would also support an even higher minimum wage if it were passed on the state level, like the $12 minimum wage that labor activists are trying to put on the ballot in 2016. That would boost the minimum wage to $9 an hour in 2017, and increase it by $1 a year for the next three years, indexed to inflation after that.

But doubling the minimum wage is too risky for a single city in a state where $7.50 is the minimum everywhere else.

The activists behind this referendum are not wrong. Income inequality is the moral issue of our time, and stagnant wages are crushing the middle class. We wish we could support it, but we will vote “no.”


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