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Opinion: California workers urgently need an $18 an hour minimum wage

Californians may have gotten temporary relief recently when gas prices finally fell to about $6 a gallon this month, down from as high as $8 per gallon in June in Los Angeles County. Inflation has rocked the economy, with prices soaring 9.1% in June.

But even before inflation spiked, Californians were already weathering an affordability crisis. California has some of the nation’s highest housing expenses, the most expensive gas and the third-highest overall cost of living. A single adult in California needs to earn at least $21.82 an hour to make ends meet, according to a living wage calculator by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If you’re a single parent with one child, that figure rises to $44 and nearly $55 if you have two kids. It’s no surprise nearly half of residents surveyed earlier this year were considering ditching the state altogether.

California’s low-wage workers need a minimum wage hike. The Legislature should make it happen.

Californians almost got a chance to vote to raise the minimum wage this year. In December, entrepreneur and anti-poverty advocate Joe Sanberg launched the campaign to put the California Living Wage Act of 2022 on the November ballot. The initiative aimed to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage to $18 by 2025. But it failed to qualify for the upcoming election because counties were unable to verify enough signatures in time. Sanberg sued to force Secretary of State Shirley Weber to place the measure on this year’s ballot, but a judge last week found that Weber had acted properly and ruled against the campaign for missing a key deadline to get the measure on this year’s ballot. The measure has instead qualified for the 2024 ballot.

If voters want a minimum wage bump sooner, it will likely need to come from the Legislature.

Lawmakers could introduce a bill to raise the minimum wage one dollar each year until it reaches $18 an hour in 2025, similar to the California Living Wage Act.

In 2016, the Legislature passed a $15 minimum wage, with polling suggesting most voters supported the policy. Now there may be concerns that raising the minimum wage will fuel inflation by increasing the costs of goods and labor. But a policy brief by Michael Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, found that if implemented, the California Living Wage Act would raise prices by just .042% over three years, debunking possible fears that higher wages will stoke inflation.

Still, some businesses, especially those with few employees and thin profit margins, could suffer as a result of raising the minimum wage, and their costs could very well increase, even if the overall burden on the economy is slight.

The is the heart of policymaking: accepting necessary trade-offs. In this case, the need for poverty relief should be our top priority.

With a minimum wage roughly twice the $7.25 federal mandate, California is sometimes perceived as a state of progress and prosperity. But for many the reality is one of crummy wages and a cycle of poverty; the state’s average per capita income was still a meager $38,576 in 2020, according to the Census Bureau, with the highest poverty rate in the country when the cost of living is factored in.

If the Legislature doesn’t act now, workers could lose the crucial gains of this measure. Though 37 localities have their own higher wage standards and inflation adjustments, some of which could reach close to $18 by 2025, many others do not.

It’s time to give workers a dignified wage — one that affords them adequate food, housing and transportation. Let’s give California’s workers the pay they deserve.

Isaac Lozano is a summer 2022 Opinion intern at the Los Angeles Times. He is a rising sophomore at Stanford University, where he is studying political science. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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