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Minimum wage increase doesn’t add up to a living wage

Ashley Urquhart (left) and her mother, Arline, will benefit from the minimum wage increase signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick, but “it’s still not enough to survive,” said Arline.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

BRAINTREE — Arline and Ashley Urquhart are barely scraping by. Arline, 42, makes a little more than $10 an hour managing the liquor department at the Walgreens in Downtown Crossing. Ashley, 19, makes $8 an hour, plus a few dollars a day in tips, at Dunkin’ Donuts in Dorchester.

The mother and daughter, who share a two-bedroom, rent-subsidized apartment and get free health insurance from the state, sometimes subsist on ramen noodles and protein shakes when the grocery money runs out.

The new minimum wage law enacted Thursday — pushing the hourly rate in Massachusetts from $8 to $11 dollars over the next few years — gives the state the highest base pay in the nation. But while it will help workers such as the Urquharts, it is still not considered enough for an individual to live on.


In Massachusetts, the hourly rate a full-time worker needs to pay for food, housing, transportation, and other regular expenses is at least $11.31 an hour, according to the Living Wage Calculator developed by an MIT professor. In Boston and Braintree, where the Urquharts live, it’s $12.65 an hour.

The pay raise Arline and Ashley Urquhart will get from the new law means they’ll be able to afford fresh fruit and lower-fat hamburger meat. They might be able to buy a real couch to replace the blanket-covered bench in the living room that serves as a sofa now. They won’t worry as much about the 10-cent increase in bus fare. Ashley could buy a decent pair of shoes; Arline would have the $30 she needs to apply to Quincy College.

In other words, a higher minimum wage will make their lives a little more stable, a little less stressful. But not necessarily comfortable.

“It’s still not enough to survive,” said Arline, who pops ibuprofen to relieve the back pain she said is caused by lifting heavy liquor boxes at Walgreens, where she recently had to decrease her hours. “A couple of dollars wouldn’t really make the biggest difference. It really wouldn’t.” (Walgreen and Dunkin’ Donuts declined to comment.)


Arline pays 30 percent of her income to live in a subsidized apartment at a Braintree housing complex, about $430 a month when she was working full time; her daughter has to contribute 30 percent of half of her income. Through MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, they get free health coverage, an average value of $550 a month per person.

More than 600,000 Massachusetts workers, 1 in 5 in the state, stand to get a bump in pay from the minimum wage increase, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center — 85 percent of them above the age of 20. The new law requires employers to pay workers no less than $11 an hour by 2017.

Still, the minimum wage increase won’t do much to address ever-widening income inequality. Boston has the fourth-largest gap between rich and poor among the country’s 50 largest cities, according to the Brookings Institution. In Boston, the top 5 percent of households earned more than $222,000 a year, 15 times more than the lowest 20 percent, which had incomes of less than $14,600 a year.

In addition, Massachusetts’ minimum wage is not tied to inflation, which means as the prices of groceries, rent, and electricity rise, workers will fall further behind, advocates said. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center estimates that by 2017, $11 will be worth $10.32 in today’s dollars.


As the plight of low-wage workers gets more attention, the push to raise the minimum wage has gained momentum. The Senate recently voted down a bill that would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. But a handful of states, including California, have moved to lift their minimum wages above $10 an hour, and $15 an hour was just passed in Seattle.

The next step, workers’ advocates say, is shifting the conversation from a minimum wage to a living one. Across the country, fast food and other low-paid workers have demonstrated for $15 an hour, an amount that organizers in Massachusetts say is needed to meet the basic needs of working families.

“The economic glass of a low-wage earner earning $8 to $9 an hour is pretty empty, so to move up to $11 an hour is like getting the glass around 40 percent filled toward a living wage,” said Lew Finfer, co-chair of Raise Up Massachusetts, which had been pushing for a minimum wage increase indexed to inflation. “We know we’re not finished creating the opportunity and dignity that people need.”

The bump to $11 would give full-time workers making between $8 and $10 an hour an extra $6,000 and $2,000 a year, respectively, before taxes, said MIT professor Amy Glasmeier, who developed the Living Wage Calculator. That’s not trivial.


“To somebody who’s making $22,000 a year, if you added $2,000 a year to their lives,” she said, “it could keep them from potentially losing their job because they can’t get there because they can’t fix their car.”

But those who oppose the higher minimum wage say it will hurt opportunity by forcing employers to reduce hours, hire fewer people — especially teens and college students — and possibly even move out of state. That, they say, will hurt the economy overall.

Erin Calvo-Bacci, owner of a chocolate manufacturing business in Swampscott and the Chocolate Truffle shop in Reading, said she already is dealing with higher chocolate prices and smaller profit margins, so increased labor costs will be a serious blow.

Passing along higher costs by raising prices for distributors such as Whole Foods Market and TJX Cos. isn’t really an option, she said. That could lead them to replace her products with cheaper ones, said Calvo-Bacci, who had to sell her home in Wakefield in 2010 to keep the business running.

“There’s this big push to raise up the American families, but they’re doing it on the backs of American family businesses in Massachusetts,” she said. “Now we have to look long and hard at: Can we afford to stay in Massachusetts?”

Meanwhile, Arline and Ashley Urquhart, the mother and daughter roommates in Braintree, bring home less than $1,500 a month between them — plus a little extra when Arline sings in a cover band.

They are trying to get more hours and are eager for the minimum wage increases to kick in, which they say could allow them to put some money in their empty savings account. But they don’t expect it to lift them out of a world where every penny counts.


“I’m already making $10,” Arline said, “and it’s just nothing to live on.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.