The other day I was grabbing an order of rice and beans at my favorite Hartford restaurant. It's a meal in less than two minutes, under two bucks, and it's tasty, low-fat, nutritious and filling. I've been getting the same exact dish for close to 10 years. It's not on the menu, but I never deviate.
The lovely lady who took my order the other day has been at the counter at least as long as I've been going there. I had stopped in on my way home after helping plan a press conference to urge lawmakers to increase the minimum wage.
"How much do you make here?" I asked my server.
"Oh, $8 and some change," she replied.
Wow, I thought; minimum wage is $8.25 an hour. So much for regular raises and rewards for longevity and good work.
"Do you get health insurance?" I asked. Nope, but she buys some from the state.
During the short time while I waited for my food we chatted about what that's like. She's thinking about dropping the health insurance because the premiums are going up. It costs a lot to go to the doctor. It's hard to pay rent, utilities, gas.
"Do you think minimum wage should be higher?" I asked, feeling a little dumb for asking.
"Yes!" she replied quietly, smiling, her eyes admonishing me a little for making her say it out loud.
I enjoyed my rice and beans, as always.
The next day the House of Representative passed a plan to raise the minimum wage and my server's pay by 50 cents per hour over two years. The measure was a compromise, reducing the raise from $1.50 per hour over two years and removing a provision to increase minimum wage with inflation. Now the Senate has to decide whether to take it up; Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he'd sign the bill.
In the media and on the House floor, politicians and lobbyists say: Why bother? This would only amount to $10 per week, not enough to make a difference to any low-income family. This increase is not enough to lift anyone out of poverty. Besides, they say, it would cost the state jobs and jeopardize our fragile economic recovery.
Many studies say it won't cost jobs, and of course I agree with these. That hasn't happened in many documented cases. And increasing the minimum wage is a stimulus in its own right, as low-wage workers put that money right back into their communities, buying necessities such as food, gas and clothes, in stores where it will circulate many more times.
If ever there was a principle that combines policy and the lives of people, here it is. When I asked, my server said she might be interested in going to the press conference with me, but was busy. Small wonder. I can't imagine any boss being happy to see his workers on television talking about how hard it is to make ends meet on what he pays them.
I'm not sure what kind of car he drives, but I bet it's a lot nicer than the bus his workers take. I'm not saying people who work hard and invest in their own business and communities shouldn't have nice cars. I am saying that the people who work for them should have a decent way to get to work and be able to afford food, a decent place to live and health care.
Both of these things are possible. According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 109,000 people in Connecticut would see their wages go up if this bill succeeds. They'd be better able to hang on to their health care and better afford their groceries and kids' clothes — money that will go right back into our communities and strengthen the economy.
I'd gladly pay more for my rice and beans.
Liz Dupont-Diehl is policy director at the Connecticut Association for Human Services
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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