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By Marc Stier, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center

As I documented in a previous blog post, there is no question that the minimum wage is worth less than what it was at an earlier time in our history, even though we are a far more prosperous country today than in the past. And yet large numbers of people—more than 21% of all workers in Pennsylvania—earn less than $15 per hour or just above it.

And that’s why we need a minimum wage. It is one of the critical policies that, like the right to form unions, the social safety net, and a tax system that asks the rich to pay at a higher rate than the poor, ensures we have an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy owners of huge corporations.

We show respect for the dignity of work by ensuring all workers are paid a decent wage that allows them to support themselves and their families. Opponents of a higher minimum wage want people to do the work but don’t care about their dignity. And, thanks to our tax dollars, they get the work—for we pay to subsidize wealthy corporations that fail to pay their workers a living wage thus forcing them to supplement their low wages with social safety net programs.

But what is the proper level for the minimum wage? And where should it be set?

I’ve made the case for raising the minimum wage to at least $15 per hour in a previous blog post. Here I want to argue that at least in some parts of the state, it’s time to raise the minimum wage above $15. Doing that requires Pennsylvania to repeal the preemption law preventing local governments from raising their minimum wage above the statewide level.

The rationale for a minimum wage higher than $15 per hourin at least some parts of Pennsylvania can be seen by looking at the table below, which provides data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator in 2023. According to the authors, “A living wage is what one full-time worker must earn on an hourly basis to help cover the cost of their family’s minimum basic needs where they live while still being self-sufficient. The Living Wage Calculator’s estimate of a living wage includes eight typical expenses or basic needs: food, child care, health care, housing, transportation, civic engagement, broadband access, and other necessities.

Due to differences in the cost of living and employment conditions, a living wage varies from one region and one county to another.

You can see from the table that while a $15 minimum wage provides a living wage for single workers without children in some counties in Pennsylvania, a higher wage would be necessary to provide a living wage in 43 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It is above $16.00 in 17 counties, including Allegheny County, and above $17.00 in seven counties, including Philadelphia and all of its collar counties as well as Centre and Pike Counties. At $18.31, Pike County has the highest living wage level of all counties in our state.

When one factors in the cost of providing for children, a living wage far exceeds $15 per hour in every county in the state. For a single parent it is over $30 in every county in the state. And even with two working parents it is over $17 in every county in the state.

So, it is time not just to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15, along with an annual cost-of-living increase. It’s also time to allow counties to experiment with higher minimum wages adjusted for local conditions. While economic conditions may not currently allow for a minimum higher than $15 in every county in the state, it’s likely that some counties—or groups of counties in some areas like Southeast Pennsylvania—will raise would minimum wage above $15 soon if given the option to do so. And ending preemption of local choice with regard to the minimum wage would not just move us closer to a living wage in many places in the state, it would enable the kind of experimentation that helps us improve minimum wage policy statewide.

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