Guest Blog: Ben Shnider On The $15 Minimum Wage

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Ben Shnider is the national political director for J Street, a Board member of Action Committee for Transit, and a commissioner on the Rockville Human Rights Commission. I’m tired just typing all the stuff he does. 

This has been a rough week for progressives, both nationally and in Montgomery County. Yet while our new president’s revoltingly xenophobic executive orders could be anticipated, our outgoing County Executive’s veto of minimum wage legislation is a stark departure from the County’s proud progressive identity.

The cost of living in Montgomery County has sky-rocketed in recent years. A family of four must now earn $83,000 to afford to live in the County. That’s four times the federal poverty level – and more than the cost of living in San Francisco. This burden is disproportionately experienced by non-white residents, now a majority of those living in the County, who are more likely to be underemployed or unemployed.

Meanwhile, income inequality continues to threaten the stability of our national economy and it is particularly dramatic in suburbanjurisdictions like ours. The ratio of the earnings of Montgomery County’s top 1% to those of our bottom 99% is 20-1, rendering the gap between rich and poor in our County wider than in 2,664 of 3,064 American counties.

The bottom line: the richest Americans control more wealth than they have since the lead-up to the Great Depression and Montgomery County represents the frontlines of this inequality. So if we take seriously the progressive values we preach in this County, we ought to also join the frontlines of the fight against it.

A $15 minimum wage would be a constructive start. It would ease the economic burden for the thousands of County residents struggling to make a basic living, who can’t afford to wait for the study advocated by opponents of the wage hike. It would also demonstrate to the country how progressive jurisdictions can equitably grow – just when such leadership at the local level is most needed.  

Those insisting on a study should take a look at Seattle, where a similar hike is being implemented — far from the sky falling, it’s littered with cranes. The city’s rate of job growth remains triple the national average and the dramatic price increases predicted by naysayers have failed to materialize.  

County Executive Leggett has protested that the tourism industries of Seattle, New York, and California — where a $15 minimum wage is also being implemented — render these jurisdictions more fertile terrain for such a policy. Of course he’s right that Montgomery County lacks a tourism industry on par with these economies. However, Seattle, New York, and California also aren’t a metro ride away from the nation’s largest employer – itself located in a jurisdiction that recently approved a $15 minimum wage.

If Montgomery County is serious about the progressive identity we so often tout, then we must actually lead in upholding our progressive values. Unfortunately, the County has failed this leadership test in the debate over a $15 minimum wage.

Councilmember Berliner, who opposed the measure, illustrated precisely the County’s flawed approach to this issue when he reflected to the Washington Post, “There does need to be an adjustment in the minimum wage… I just don’t think we should be marching along on this national movement.”

He’s right. Montgomery County shouldn’t be marching along on this national movement. We should be leading it.

Ben Shnider, Rockville

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