Yet we are remiss if we don’t also consider the public policies that create these needs, and engage in the political acts necessary to end poverty in Maryland — the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the history of the world — where one in 10 people live below the official poverty line. In Baltimore City, one in four people — and one in three children — live in poverty.
Recently, communities across the country commemorated National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, which originated in 1975 to raise awareness and promote actions that address the most vicious symptoms of poverty. Since that time, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has decreased by more than 20 percent, although worker productivity has risen; the number of people living in poverty is at an all-time high; and ever more of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness and hunger.
Students from area colleges and universities have organized events — including a “sleep out” at Baltimore City Hall last month — to draw attention to the public shame of hunger and homelessness and to motivate public action necessary to address the grinding effects of poverty and the unprecedented maldistribution of wealth: 95 percent of the wealth created during the recovery from the Great Recession has gone to the top 1 percent of earners.
These students understand that an essential element of ending poverty is raising wages for the lowest paid workers and support a proposal to increase, by 2016, Maryland’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour from $7.25 per hour. This action would provide an annual income of $21,008 — compared to the current floor of $15,080. More money in workers’ pockets means more people able to afford food, housing and other necessities, while also injecting more money into our state economy.
It is a common misperception that those earning the state’s lowest wages are teenagers making pocket money. In fact, 87 percent of Maryland’s minimum wage workers are at least 20 years old, 46 percent have some college education, one-third are married and one-quarter have children.
At an event during the 2013 Maryland General Assembly Session, a minimum wage earning member of Witness to Hunger broke into tears describing her impossible choices: Would her children eat, take their medicine, have child care or sleep under a roof? Through her tears, she described how low wages keep working families from achieving economic stability.
The rising cost of basic needs puts them far out of reach as wages fail to keep pace. In order to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Maryland at the Fair Market Rent (FMR), a minimum wage earner must work 135 hours per week, 52 weeks per year — the equivalent of 3.4 full-time minimum wage jobs. There is no county in Maryland — and no jurisdiction in the U.S. — in which a minimum wage worker can afford even an efficiency unit at FMR without working more than 40 hours a week. Even in Somerset County, which has the lowest housing costs in the state, a worker would need to make $8.19 an hour to afford an efficiency apartment. A modest increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would prevent homelessness by decreasing the housing burden for thousands of Maryland families.
As of January 1, 2014, 21 states and the District of Columbia will have higher minimum wages than Maryland. In order to maintain our competitiveness, we cannot wait for the federal government to act.
Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Our neighbors and friends who find themselves hungry and homeless are the collateral damage of our defeat, with stagnant wages, a rising cost of living, and a social safety net increasingly frayed by federal budget cuts. At the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, Martin Luther King Jr. and others demanded a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, King’s demand would equal $15.27 today — more than double our current wage floor.
Though a minimum wage increase will not completely eliminate poverty, and $10.10 is well below what’s needed to afford critical necessities such as housing, nearly 500,000 Marylanders would benefit from raising the minimum wage. As we engage in a time of thanks giving, let us couple our charitable service with the advocacy necessary to advance systemic social justice. Let’s begin by supporting increased wages for Maryland’s lowest paid workers.
Adam Schneider is director of community relations at Health Care for the Homeless and chair of the Maryland Alliance for the Poor. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. “