Charly Carter, executive director of Maryland Working Families.
Maryland is reported to be the wealthiest state in the nation, yet if you ask anyone on the street, they would say something different. You would hear concern over the ever-rising costs of housing, food and utilities; climbing student loan burdens; and a government that seems increasingly out of touch with residents. Maryland working families are experiencing unprecedented levels of economic insecurity.
A strong Maryland for all of us depends on economic security for working families including: jobs that pay a living wage; paid sick time; affordable housing and higher education; safe and healthy communities; and the ability to retire with dignity and security. Maryland Working Families is building a progressive movement with our labor, civil rights and faith partners as well as individuals to advance an ambitious economic security policy agenda. We may not be able solve inequality overnight, but we can demand that our elected leaders enact policies that will begin to improve the economic health and well-being of families and our communities.
According to the Center on Economic Policy Research, approximately 22 percent of working people in the United States suffer from economic hardship because their earnings — coupled with public and other benefits — fall below the basic needs budget for their area. If we are to create economic stability for working families, we must start by reversing the decade-long decline in real earnings. Earlier this year, our Raise Maryland campaign raised the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour by 2018, giving nearly half a million Marylanders a much needed increase. It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go. To close the chasm between rich and poor, we need to push for a living wage, index future raises in the state’s basement wage to inflation, and eliminate the $3.63 minimum wage for tipped workers that keeps more than 300,000 workers – mostly women – in poverty.
More than 700,000 workers in Maryland have no paid sick days. The loss of income — or even your job — because you or a family member is sick is a major source of economic insecurity. Establishing paid sick days for workers will be a major issue during the 2015 session of the Maryland General Assembly. We will be joining more than 100 advocates, businesses, and faith leaders to pass a law that will allow all workers to earn paid sick leave and protect them from retribution for using it.
A 2009 study by the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development showed that 70 percent of low-income families paid more than half of their income toward housing. It also predicted that in the year 2015, more than 130,000 families would be unable to find affordable housing. Maryland Working Families is promoting policies that ensure our tax money and public dollars are used to support development that preserves housing opportunities for low and middle income families, limits displacement of communities, and employs green building practices.
A clear path toward economic security is through higher education but the average student graduates from college owing an average of $29,400. Marylanders carry the highest student loan burden in the country, one that continues to rise even as the Maryland General Assembly struggles to prevent tuition increases at the state university system. We are educating legislators about innovative public financing options — like Oregon’s Pay it Forward program — to help young people achieve their dreams without bankrupting their future.
The ability to access emergency funds to pay for unexpected events like car repairs or medical care can mean the difference between getting and keeping a job and unemployment. The tightening of the credit market has put even more pressure on working families, many of whom can fall prey to payday lenders and predatory lending schemes. Without meaningful programs that allow workers to access credit, we will continue to see families struggle to find security. Maryland Working Families is working to partner with financial institutions to develop avenues to connect Maryland’s working families to credit.
At the end of our work lives, we should be able to retire in dignity and with some economic security. That means giving workers the opportunity to save for retirement through pre-tax deductions and free programs that don’t eat up savings on fees. In coalition with AARP, SEIU, Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition and Gov. Martin O’Malley, Maryland Working Families successfully lobbied for a state review of public investment options in 2014, and will push legislation to fund a pilot program in 2015.
As the late Sen. Paul Wellstone was fond of saying, “We all do better when we all do better.” Economic security not only helps make stronger families, it also builds stronger communities and a healthier society. Please join Maryland Working Families in building economic security for every Maryland family because it is the right thing to do and it benefits us all.
Charly Carter is the executive director of Maryland Working Families.