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$6.15 an hour is a start

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It’s an all-but-certain prospect that North Carolina’s new minimum wage will be $6.15 an hour come Jan. 1, 2007. Given the Herculean efforts of legislators like Guilford County’s NC Rep. Alma Adams over the past 10 years to raise the wage floor it might be tempting to throw a party ‘— and toss the work gloves in the closet.

The truth is that the new minimum wage represents more an adjustment for inflation than a raise. After all, the last time the minimum wage was increased nationally was 1997 and, as the Raleigh News & Observer pointed out back in January, ‘“Today it takes $6.26 to buy what $5.15 bought in 1997.’”

About 3 percent of workers in the Piedmont region make less than $6.15 per hour, according to the NC Justice Center in Raleigh, accounting for about 11,700 people in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. The real impact will be felt in the poverty belt down east and in a handful of mountain counties. An analysis released by the Justice Center on June 26 estimates that roughly a third of the affected workers live in counties east of Interstate 95 and that almost three quarters live outside the state’s major urban centers.

Let’s not minimize the impact on the poorest of workers in the Triad. Even an extra dollar for a single adult wage-earner working full time and trying to raise a family translates into an extra $2,000 a year. That’s money that can help cover the expense of diapers, baby formula, gas and shoes. But a single mother with two children working 40 hours a week for $6.15 would still fall below the poverty level.

The statewide increase is only one front of the battle, with campaigns gearing up in both the US Senate and among grassroots activists in Greensboro that are potentially more significant for the working poor. The Senate Democrats have seized on raising the minimum wage as a moral issue that can mobilize their base in much the same way the Republicans used efforts to ban same-sex marriage to help President Bush squeak through a reelection in 2004.

Even more promising is the campaign to get a living wage initiative on the ballot in Greensboro. Though it falls short of the Justice Center’s Living Income Standard of $12.32, the $8.50 minimum wage would dramatically improve the lives of low-wage workers in the Gate City. It would lift many of them out of poverty. Yes, it would raise the cost of a night on the town, but those working in the kitchens, punching the cash registers and cleaning the office suites might themselves be able to afford a night out once in awhile. The extra money earned is extra money that will be spent in our potentially great city.

Let’s dream big.

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