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Pioneer Editorial: How about a living wage, not minimum

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday failed -- for the ninth time since 1997 -- to raise the minimum wage, which has remained unchanged during that time at $5.15 an hour. The 52-46 vote was eight short of the 60 needed for approval under budget rules in the Senate, and the House has sworn off any attempt to vote on a minimum wage bill at any time this year.

Both chambers are controlled by the Republicans; the minimum wage effort is being pushed by Democrats. This time, the minimum wage would have been raised to $7.25 an hour over two years.

The argument over the years has varied little -- Democrats say the working poor can't live on a minimum wage so low while Republicans say the marketplace does a better job of sorting out wages and that to set a higher minimum wage will harm the working poor by forcing employers to cut jobs.

Both sides are right.

At $5:15 an hour, a minimum wage worker makes $10,700 a year, which is nearly $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. The real value of today's minimum wage is more than $4 below what it was in 1968, and would have to be $9.26 an hour to have the same purchasing power as in 1968.

Minnesota raised its minimum wage last year for the first time since 1997, from $5.15 an hour to $5.25 an hour for small employers and $6.15 an hour for large employers, joining 20 other states in doing what the federal government isn't.

In general, the marketplace does set wages, making the need for a government-set minimum wage unnecessary in some cases. In pure supply and demand, where there is a lack of labor, even burger-flipping jobs may start at $10 an hour. And there is truth in that businesses which operate on the edge with minimum-wage workers will cut workers if those wages are mandated higher.

So what's the solution?

Perhaps some sort of tiered system should be considered, such as Minnesota's system which is based on employer size. But going beyond that, the scope of the job needs to be studied as well. Currently, there are 53,000 workers in Minnesota who earn the minimum wage, a relatively small segment of the total workforce.

People who work full time and support a family should make a living wage, in other words enough to rise above poverty level. Some jobs, such as part-time second jobs, or student jobs, could see a lower wage. At one time, the idea of a guaranteed annual income was floated, and perhaps it should again.

While the current debate over a minimum wage seems stalled, there should be no disagreement from either side that an able-bodied person willing to work 40 hours a week should be paid enough to be self-supporting. And, even with the marketplace at work, that doesn't always happen.

It's how we get there that is the question.