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Report: Too Few Maine Jobs Pay 'Living Wage'
12/05/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A new study from several advocacy groups supports claims that there are not enough jobs that pay a so-called living wage. In Maine, a living wage for a single adult is estimated to be about $31,000 per year, more than double the federal poverty level. The study offers two proposals to solve the problem. But as Patty Wight reports, some economists say a permanent fix will require a multi-faceted approach.

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Twenty-four-year-old Catie Lary graduated from Bates College with a degree in women and gender studies a couple of years ago. She says she wanted a job that would help people, and she saw a lot of openings for home care aids.

"And on the surface it looked like a really livable, good opportunity," Lary says. "But logistically, when you really get into it, the amount of travel - unreimbursed - and trainings, limited number of clients, it really doesn't end up working out the way it sounds."

Lary says she loves her job as a home care aid in the midcoast, but it's not a livable wage. She says she's lucky to have the support of family, and the ability to stay on her father's health insurance policy, at least until she's 26. But Lary says she's not sure she'll be able to stay in Maine for the long term.

"People always complain about all the young people leaving Maine and leaving the state, and I'm one of the young people that's actually trying to stay here, and wants to be here and wants to raise a family here and work here and contribute to the economy, and it's just not possible right now," she says.

Lary's experience is not unique, says the Maine People's Alliance Associate Director Amy Halsted. The group has just released its 15th annual Job Gap study, which evaluated employment in 10 states, in partnership with the Alliance for a Just Society.

"It shows a trend where there are more and more jobs that are incredibly low wage and make it really difficult for workers to make ends meet," Halsted says. "And there are fewer jobs that pay what workers need to earn to provide for their families."

The report finds that in Maine, there are 10 job seekers for every living wage job. As the size of a household grows, that ratio gets worse. To increase the number of living wage jobs, the Job Gap study proposes two solutions in Maine: raise the minimum wage, which has remained at $7.50 for four years, and increase access to affordable health care.

In other words, expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Economist Charlie Colgan says those steps might help in the short term, but "the economy right now really does not produce enough jobs to absorb the people coming out of college, or high school."

Colgan, of the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School, says it's a problem going back at least two decades, exacerbated by the Great Recession and, he says, not-so-great recovery. Colgan says over the long-term, overall incomes need to rise.

"That's only going to happen when the economy as a whole starts producing additional jobs, and people are trained and have skills to take the jobs that the economy needs," Colgan says.

Democratic state Senate President Justin Alfond says a number of bills will tackle the issue in the next legislative session. Two would expand Medicaid, others aim to help small businesses grow, make college more affordable, and incentivize adults to return to school "to get the skills so they can jump into the market, fill these jobs in I-T, fill these jobs in precision manufacturing and health care that are livable wages, so they can support them and their families."

There is no bill, however to increase the minimum wage. Alfond says that measure was approved, but then vetoed by the governor in the last session.


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