Allowing Cities & Towns to Raise the Minimum Wage: The Right Move for New Jersey’s Low-Wage Workers

There is no doubt that boosting the minimum wage is essential to raising the quality of life for low-income workers, even more so in high-cost places like New Jersey. The state took an important step in 2013, when voters overwhelmingly approved a minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour. Crucially, the wage is tied to annual changes in the cost of living, ensuring that low-income workers won’t fall further behind. While these are important steps, further action is needed to allow hardworking, low-income New Jerseyans to earn a decent living.

As it stands now, state law prevents New Jersey localities from setting wage floors higher than the state’s. Assembly Bill 3912 would rightly change that to allow cities and towns to take the high road and set local minimum wages that begin to approach earnings that’d allow workers to put food on the table, a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs.

New Jersey’s current minimum wage is $8.38 per hour – not even close to enough to make ends meet in high-cost New Jersey. To meet a “survival budget” – to barely handle basic needs – a New Jersey single adult working full-time needs to earn $13.78 per hour, according to the United Way. When looking at a “stability budget,” which includes more money for better food and decent shelter, plus modest savings and other important measures of a working-class life, that single adult needs to make $19.73 per hour.

And we know that not all of these low-wage workers are single. They certainly aren’t the stereotypical teenaged burger-flipper of decades past. As the middle class struggles and shrinks, low-wage workers are increasingly older, more educated and working more hours. New Jersey’s low-wage workforce is no exception.

• More than 8 in 10 New Jersey low-wage workers are adults over 20 years old.

• About 55 percent of them are working full-time with at least 35 hours per week, and another 30 percent are working between 20 and 35 hours a week. Only 15 percent are working part-time jobs.

• About half of the state’s low-wage workers have either attended or graduated from college.

• And about 1 in 4 are working parents supporting at least 1 child.

Local governments across the nation are taking the lead by setting minimum wages that are finally beginning to approach living wages. New Jersey’s cities and towns should at least have the choice to join their counterparts in Chicago, Seattle, New York City, Louisville and elsewhere. This legislation would untie the hands of New Jersey’s localities and – we hope – be an important first step at improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors working in low-wage jobs.