The purpose of the proposed Montgomery County living-wage legislation is simple -- to honor and reward work. A June 21 editorial expressed opposition to the legislation, which would ensure that men and women employed by the larger county government contractors or by companies that receive large county subsidies earn a wage that can support them and their families.
The editorial didn't consider that in the middle of economic prosperity and a 1.7 percent unemployment rate the number of families living in poverty in Montgomery County has increased by 60 percent. Nearly 23,000 of the county's public school students qualify for free lunches -- which means that their family income is less than $21,710 a year. That figure translates into 20 percent of our students being raised in poverty -- compared with 5 percent two decades ago. The number of working poor is growing.
At a time when we are celebrating the reduction in our welfare rolls, we ought to lend a helping hand to the working poor and their children so that they can build a future of independence. The Post suggested that we could give poor people more public assistance. So call me old-fashioned -- I'd rather put money in their pockets that they can take pride in earning and money they'll spend with Montgomery County businesses.
When Montgomery passes the living-wage legislation, it will do what 30 other local governments around the country already have done -- localities such as Baltimore, Chicago, San Jose, New York City and Des Moines. And those cities and towns are doing just fine economically, despite the Chicken Little hysterics of The Post's editorial. No evidence has been found that a living wage has hurt the economy of any jurisdiction where it has been in effect.
Among the economic benefits of the living wage would be lower employee turnover, higher morale, increased productivity and more competition, as contractors bid for county work based on the quality of their services rather than on how effectively they can undercut one another on wages. That's why some county contractors have voiced support for the living-wage bill.
The bill, once passed by the council, would take effect on July 1, 2000. It would affect companies with county contracts that have five or more employees and that do $50,000 or more of county government work annually. These companies would be required to pay their employees on county jobs $9 an hour (112 percent of the federal poverty standard for a family) if they provide health benefits and $10.44 an hour (130 percent of the federal standard) if they do not. Companies that choose to receive county economic development monies or tax credits of more than $100,000 would also fall under the living-wage legislation.
The living-wage measure would address perceived problems concerning Silver Spring redevelopment by exempting the urban renewal area. As The Post has reported, the Silver Spring project is moving ahead just fine. Most council members also have indicated they'll expand that to all county enterprise zones. The bill further includes an exemption for any company that can demonstrate "serious economic hardship."
Our county should invest its public dollars in this modest effort to raise 1,000 or 2,000 working poor men and women potentially affected by the legislation above the poverty line. Montgomery is plenty big enough to help its working poor and continue to be a good place to do business.
-- Phil Andrews
a Democrat, represents Rockville on the Montgomery County Council.