In one of the first acts of the new legisla-tive session, Gov. Tony Knowles presented his proposal last week to increase the state's minimum wage to $6.40 an hour. While the proposal likely elicited groans from the business community, it is an idea whose time has not only come, but is long overdue.
The governor introduced his proposal on Jan. 17, nearly 200 years to the day after Thomas Jefferson noted in his inaugural address that "a wise and frugal government ... shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned." While we have come a long way since then, the quality-of-life issues that inspired Jefferson remain constant.
"We must ensure that every working Alaskan has the opportunity to earn a decent, livable wage," the governor said in his introduction of the wage increase proposal during his State of the State address.
Opponents might contend that at it's present level -- $5.65 an hour -- the minimum wage in Alaska is already 50 cents an hour higher than the federal minimum and, therefore, should not be raised. But this is the worst kind of denial. In addition to pockets of the state being among the most expensive in the nation in which to live, Alaska's minimum wage is 85 cents less than the next lowest on the West Coast.
Additionally, these are prosperous times. Our country's economy has seen unprecedented growth in recent years. Alaska may be lagging a bit behind in general terms, but, as the governor noted in his speech, "the state of our state is strong."
"We began this new century with more Alaskans working than ever before -- nearly 282,000 -- earning a record 9.5 billion dollars. We've created more than 22,000 new jobs, and enjoy the lowest unemployment rates in a generation. ... With three-quarters of Alaskan jobs in the private sector, our economy is more diversified than ever."
Hidden in all the economic good news is the gap between the haves and have nots, which, disturbingly, is widening nationwide even in these prosperous times. An increase in the minimum wage, while hardly leading to wealth, will help ensure that no one who wants to work is left behind.
Anyone tempted to dismiss the increase as unnecessary because it only affects young and part-time workers should think again. According to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, approximately 14,000 Alaska workers -- 5.5 percent of the state's total workforce, received hourly wages between $5.65 and $6.74 an hour. More than 70 percent of those receiving minimum wages are adults.
"A single parent working year-round in Alaska at minimum wage earns only two-thirds of the poverty level for a family of three and cannot hope to rise out of poverty," Knowles said. "These are disturbing facts that must change."
We agree. The governor's bill makes good sense for everyone. It will give a shot in the arm to an already successful welfare-to-work program, which has helped reduce welfare rolls dramatically and saved the state $51 million in the last four years. At least as important, it will help provide fundamental dignity and respect and a decent quality of life for all who want to work.
If his proposal is passed, as it should be, it would take effect Oct. 1, followed by an increase to $7.15 a year later. The wage would then adjust annually to match inflation, increasing by pennies per year, the governor noted, but helping to ensure that minimum wage earners don't lose ground as they provide food, clothing and housing for their families.
Jefferson was aware, 200 hundred years ago, that "a wise and frugal government" should never underestimate the importance of workers to the national identity. "This is necessary," he said, "to close the circle of our felicities." By pushing an increase in the minimum wage, Knowles is doing his part on the state level. After all, as he said, "working for a minimum wage in Alaska should not mean a minimum quality of life."
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