TIME AND closer study are now pointing up the serious economic damage that Montgomery County Council members could do if they fall for the deceptively labeled "living wage" bill. While supporters continue to portray the measure as a helping hand to the working poor, nonprofit agencies that hire and serve the poor are concluding that it would hurt their efforts. The reason: They would be among certain companies singled out to pay employees more than twice the current minimum wage -- which could mean layoffs and fewer social services.

It's not that these agencies believe the current minimum wage is satisfactory. But the "living wage" idea doesn't come close to addressing the needs of most working poor. The bill would sock it to certain companies with county contracts. Exceptions were made when businesses and financiers of Silver Spring and Wheaton redevelopment projects threatened to drop out if these projects were included. Exceptions such as these manage at once to weaken the bill and to send a message to companies in and out of the county that the business climate in Montgomery is volatile.

The state of Maryland has had to fight off a reputation -- not always fair -- among some companies as a more difficult place to do business than Virginia or other nearby states. When a county imposes out-of-line costs -- far above minimums anywhere else in the region -- firms might well prefer to seek contracts elsewhere.

While the federal government and the states consider changes in minimum wages generally, localities have other ways to assist their working poor. Yesterday, County Executive Doug Duncan proposed a local income tax credit for poor families, along with transportation, job training and child assistance. This is a broader, far better approach. Whatever tinkering that council members might try to do to a "living wage" bill won't make that measure do what its sponsors proclaim.