Hell hath no fury like those who oppose increases in the minimum wage.

Montgomery County Council member Philip Andrews knows that, having felt the sharp sting of criticism from business owners and others for proposing a "living wage" for workers in the county.

A living wage, critics contend, would hurt the very people it's intended to help. It would force companies to relocate to other jurisdictions, hurting the business climate in Montgomery County and killing its economy, they warn.

Implicit in this Chicken Little reaction to Andrews's proposal is a message that says to those who might share the council member's philosophy: Don't rock the boat. The current minimum wage is adequate compensation for the working poor.

And that's really at the heart of the issue in this debate: Is $5.15 an hour, the federal minimum, sufficient for a family of four or more, with a single wage earner, or even two, in Montgomery County or elsewhere in metropolitan Washington?

Montgomery County is Maryland's most affluent and most populous jurisdiction. It is one of the wealthier counties in the country. Still, Montgomery County has its share of unskilled workers, many of them immigrants.

The same can be said of Fairfax County and much of Northern Virginia, where job growth is credited with fueling the area's booming economy. At the same time, metropolitan Washington ranks fourth among the richest consumer markets in the country.

But try explaining that to adult wage earners who make less than $15,000 a year.

Critics of the living-wage proposal in Montgomery County contend it would be a mistake for one jurisdiction to act unilaterally in raising the cost of labor for business. It would be an open invitation, they suggest, for businesses to migrate across the county line.

Apparently it's all right for Montgomery County to give huge tax breaks and other lucrative incentives to corporations when they threaten to move to Northern Virginia because of what they describe as the higher costs of doing business in the county.

But it would be ruinous -- if you accept the logic of those who oppose a living wage -- to raise the minimum for workers who barely manage to survive in a county where the standard of living is much higher than in most.

Andrews has proposed legislation that would require companies that do business with Montgomery County and those that receive tax breaks or other incentives to pay their employees $9 an hour if they also pay health benefits. Those same companies would pay employees $10.44 an hour if health benefits aren't provided.

For what it's worth, the legislation would exempt businesses in so-called enterprise zones and those that can demonstrate serious economic hardship.

Critics nonetheless contend that exempting some businesses from having to pay a living wage would be unfair to others.

Still, it appears that the issue is not so much the costs associated with a living wage as it is a sharp difference of opinion over what really constitutes a living wage in metropolitan Washington.

The operative word, of course, is opinion. There's an abundance of that on both sides. There is, however, a glaring shortage of empirical evidence that would support arguments on either side of the issue.

Andrews is on the right track in calling for a living wage, but his bill is too broadly drawn, given the absence of compelling evidence in support of a living wage at the level he proposes. He apparently made a mistake also in singling out county contractors to bear the brunt of the proposed wage increase.

But to insist, as many critics have, that the concept of a living wage is counterproductive is callously elitist.

A suggestion that the county might consider compensating for the wage disparity by providing more government subsidies to the poor is hardly a justification for the hardened attitudes against a living wage.

Certainly Montgomery County ought to consider giving subsidies to low-income workers for transportation, housing and day care, for example.

But given the county's exemplary record in moving people from welfare to work, subsidies should only be considered in that context. The alternative would be tantamount to perpetuating a welfare culture.

Now that fewer people are on welfare in Montgomery County the challenge for county officials is keeping them in the mainstream as productive wage earners.

Meanwhile, it would help if business leaders and elected officials in Montgomery County were to place added emphasis on work-force development. Doing so would not only help solve the living wage problem but ensure that a trained work force will always be available to business.

Finally, the living-wage debate should not be confined to Montgomery County. It's clearly an issue that ought to be addressed on a regional basis.

If all local jurisdictions were to agree on a reasonable increase in the minimum wage, there would be no need to worry about any of them acting unilaterally in raising the minimum.