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The wages of poverty

MASSACHUSETTS is an expensive state; housing, transportation, fuel, and healthcare all drive up the cost of living. Luckily, Massachusetts is also a wealthy state; the second wealthiest in the nation, with a median income of more than $52,000, or about $25 an hour.

Unless you happen to be making the $6.75 minimum wage in Massachusetts, in which case you are not so lucky.

The idea that a person can be working full time and still be living under the poverty line -- a reality for millions of Americans -- is a national shame. But for workers in wealthy Massachusetts to be earning sub-poverty wages is a sin. Today's minimum wage, which has not been adjusted since 2001, leaves a full-time worker $2,560 below the $16,600 annual poverty line for a family of three.

A bill to raise the minimum wage by $1.50 an hour over two years has been stalled in the Legislature, where discredited old arguments about negative effects on job growth are heard. Earlier this month a House committee watered down the proposal so that the wage would rise by just $1 and, importantly, not be indexed to inflation. Obviously, purchasing power is eroded by inflation. If the minimum wage set in 1968 had been properly indexed it would be $9.23 by now, well above the $8.25 in the original bill.

James Marzilli, the Arlington Democrat who sponsored the original House bill, is right to call the new version ''entirely inadequate." If the committee bill is enacted without indexing, the value of the new wage will already be below the current level by the time it is implemented in 2007. It is hard to see the point of going through this exercise only to have workers fall behind again. Other economic measures society considers important -- Social Security payments, most tax brackets, even the poverty line -- are automatically indexed; why should low-wage workers have to beg for increases every few years?

There is no evidence that the last four increases in the minimum wage led to large job losses. Unemployment has gone up recently in Massachusetts, but the economic sectors most affected by the minimum wage -- hospitality, leisure, and health services -- are growing, and few economists project a reversal due to wage increases.

Contrary to the claims of opponents, the minimum wage is not confined to teenagers with after-school jobs. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank, 154,000 people in the state are earning less than the proposed $8.25 right now. Another 329,000 would also benefit from an increase because of ripple effects. Many of them are the sole breadwinners in their families, and 59 percent are women.

The poor are forever being lectured about the dignity of work as an alternative to welfare. A state as rich as Massachusetts ought to be able to make work pay.

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