By Dan McGrath

Given the dire unemployment crisis, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that new Census Bureau data reveal that a record number of people struggled with poverty last year in the United States.

What may be more striking, however, is just how many of the poor were employed. Recently released state and local poverty data reveal that more than half of the Minnesotans who were below the poverty level were employed during 2009. More than 31,000 of our neighbors who worked full-time for the entire year were still officially poor. Too many jobs in our state pay workers poverty wages and are failing to provide a path to economic recovery for Main Street.

The ranks of the working poor are even larger when we look at the number of working Minnesotans who are working fulltime but are making less than twice the poverty line -- a measure many economists use because the official poverty line is based on an outdated 1960’s formula and considered woefully inadequate. Using this yardstick, a shocking one in 10 workers in our state who worked full-time for the entirety of 2009 was still in poverty.

Individuals in our state who have a job and are working hard still cannot escape poverty because wages are painfully low. Most minimum wage earners in our state make the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour or, roughly $15,000 a year for full-time employment. It's no wonder workers can't make ends meet even when they are fortunate enough to have a job.

According to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, roughly 50,000 workers earn the minimum wage in Minnesota. An increase in the wage floor would help these individuals directly as well as thousands more low-wage workers who would see their paychecks rise as employers adjust wages to preserve wage scales.

Raising the minimum wage would not only help working families afford basic essentials, it would also give the economy a boost. Consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of the economy, has stagnated. A modest increase in the minimum wage would put money in the hands of people who will purchase goods and services, drive up demand, and spur companies to increase production and hire more workers.

While the refrain to get America back on track has been "jobs, jobs, jobs," what we really need to be calling for are "good jobs, good jobs, good jobs." A recent analysis by the National Employment Law Project finds that the jobs that have been created in the private sector this year have been concentrated in low-wage and mid-wage industries. The jobs in high-wage industries that were lost in the downturn have yet to begin to register net gains.

If this trend continues, more and more of us will be working for less. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the 10 occupations expected to have the most job growth from 2008 to 2018 are low-wage jobs such as food preparation and customer service. If we do not act, a large and growing segment of the population will be rewarded for their work with poverty wages.

But leaders in Minnesota have the capacity to raise wages to help improve incomes and boost the economy. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum wages above the federal level. Washington State leads the way with a minimum wage of $8.55 an hour, followed by Oregon at $8.40. Minnesota should join the ranks of these state leaders by raising and indexing our minimum wage in the 2011 legislative session. A job should once again be the best means for hardworking Minnesotans to escape from poverty.
McGrath is executive director of TakeAction Minnesota.
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