BRATTLEBORO -- Lawmakers from Montpelier to Washington have been talking about working to raise the minimum wage but local business leaders say the issue is much more complex than simply legislating a pay increase.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., last week said raising the federal minimum wage would generate new jobs and increase the take-home pay of Americans by $35 billion, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute.
"The simple truth is that working people cannot survive on the federal minimum wage of $7.52 an hour, or $8 an hour or $9 an hour," Sanders said in a press release. "If people work 40 hours a week, they deserve not to live in dire poverty."
Sanders says legislation he co-sponsored will be debated soon on the Senate floor.
States like Vermont, which saw its minimum wage jump 13 cents on Jan. 1, to $8.73 an hour, are taking the lead in increasing the minimum wage, Sanders said, but more needs to be done to combat poverty across the nation.
Eleven other states had a minimum wage increase at the start of this year, Sanders said, but he still wants the federal minimum wage to increase to at least $10.10 an hour to support working individuals and families.
Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Patricia Moulton Powden said that while there might be room to raise the minimum wage, on both the state and federal levels, the realities of supporting small business, encouraging economic growth and helping lower wage workers demands a more comprehensive approach.
"I think it is a good thing that Vermont has a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum wage," said Moulton Powden, the former Commissioner at the Department of Labor. "But there is a point where it does a put a burden on small business. I just don't know exactly what that point is."
She stressed that the comments on the minimum wage she made were her own, and that the BDCC Board of Directors has not formally weighed in on the issue.
For some low skilled jobs it is not practical to force businesses to pay more at the cost of maybe hiring another employee or growing the business, and she said there are better ways to support business and grow the economy.
It is more important, for instance, to put resources into education and job training so workers are trained for higher paying jobs.
"If small businesses could pay more, they would. It would be great if you could just pay everybody $16 an hour, but you can't," Moulton Powden said. "People need to make a livable wage, but that comes through a combination of policies. I am concerned about how high a minimum wage might go. The government has a role but to simply say it has to be, makes no economic sense."
State Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said he is going to introduce a bill in the upcoming session to raise the state minimum wage to $12 an hour.
"A higher minimum wage is the single most effective anti-poverty program we can enact," Galbraith said. "Higher wages for working Vermonters means fewer will receive the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP benefits and LIHEAP, thus saving the government money. Companies that pay low wages transfer part of their labor costs from themselves to the taxpayers who supplement these workers' incomes through taxpayer-funded benefit programs."
Sanders also said low wages, especially at large companies, are supplemented by taxpayers.
According to Sanders nearly half of the children of Wal-Mart associates receive Medicaid benefits or are uninsured, and in several states Wal-Mart has the highest percentage of employees receiving food stamps.
"American taxpayers should not have to subsidize the low wages at Wal-Mart to make the store's owners, already the richest family in America, even richer," Sanders said.
Reformer reporter Mike Faher contributed to this story.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.