One in five children in Maine lives in poverty. These children are more likely to lack basic needs such as a permanent home, consistent meals, preventative health care, and warm clothes. This causes unnecessary stress on kids at a young age and puts them at a disadvantage in the classroom.
When a child lives in poverty, succeeding academically becomes a greater challenge. According to KIDS COUNT, only 20 percent of students who receive free or reduced lunches are proficient readers in fourth grade. In comparison, twice as many of their peers who don’t receive free or reduced lunches are reading proficiently in the fourth grade.
One of the best ways we can help children in poverty is by lifting their parents out of poverty.
Minimum wage in Maine is currently $7.50 per hour. A parent who works full time at a minimum wage job earns only $15,600 per year--not enough to support one person, let alone a family. Furthermore, the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, which is why it takes more than an hour of minimum wage work to buy a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, and the gallon of gas needed to get to the grocery story and back.
No one who works full time should have to worry about putting food on the table for their children.
Last week, the legislature took a step forward by passing a measure to increase the minimum wage and link it to inflation, so that as the cost of groceries increases, so will a person’s paycheck.
There is an antiquated view that increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment, but we know this is not true. In fact, five years ago, Vermont tied its minimum wage to inflation. It now has the highest minimum wage in the region, and the lowest unemployment rate in New England. Additionally, the child poverty rate in Vermont in 2010 was 13 percent which is less than Maine’s.
Maine people are hard workers. They don’t want handouts; they want jobs with dignity that pay a decent wage. We should reward that and ensure an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares this perspective, and the governor has not yet taken action on this bill. I am hoping that when he does, his focus will not be on how little we can get away with paying Maine people, but rather on what we can do to lift families out of poverty. I hope he will sign this bill into law.
State Sen. Rebecca Millett serves Senate District 7, which includes Cape Elizabeth, South Portland, and part of Scarborough. She lives in Cape Elizabeth.