EDITORIAL: Colorado gives local minimum-wage pay hikes a green light, metro Denver should go for it

342

The Aurora-Denver metro area is following the dubious path that led San Francisco and Seattle to become two of the most amazing and unlivable cities in the nation.

Like those cities, the metro area’s growing affordability problem is complex. Government meddling in things like housing costs and growth regulation are risky. Ignoring the plight of the working poor, however, will only seal the fate of the sprawling Denver region.

San Francisco and Seattle are progressive and convivial communities. Yet living costs are so high that families of four in San Francisco making under $120,000 a year qualify as “low income,” according to California wage and living studies.

Less dramatic but just as problematic is the cost of living in the Denver region, including Aurora, once the epitome of affordable housing.

The average rent for an 850-square foot apartment in Denver is now $1,600 a month. In Aurora, it’s about $1,400 — plus utilities, according to market sources.

Anyone who makes the Colorado minimum wage of $11.10 an hour can attest to the fact that, after taxes, it’s not even enough to pay for rent, let alone anything beyond. It means that tens of thousands of hourly workers could put in 40 hours and face not just crushing poverty, but homelessness in the metro area.

The argument for a sub-standard wage has long been that these jobs are meant for high-school kids happy to have a few bucks for gas and movie nights.

It’s not like that. About 80 percent of the metro area’s 250,000 low-wage earners are 24 or older and mostly women, according to a study by the Bell Policy Center. Most have no health insurance, or they get it from Medicaid, at a serious cost to taxpayers.

The value of money is a complex thing. No one should expect to get rich checking groceries at a Walmart or making fast-food orders. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that any labor has a minimum value, and that value has historically been pegged to the cost of living.

Colorado legislators and Gov. Jared Polis wisely finalized a law last week that allows local Colorado communities to raise the local minimum wage beyond the bar set by the state.

It’s a smart decision, and it’s one Aurora and the metro area should take advantage of now.

While the current minimum wage may be suitable in communities such as Pueblo, Grand Junction or Sterling, where entire houses rent for about $600 a month, greater Aurora is completely different.

The minimum wage of $11.10 is unworkable here — for employees.

Some business argue that an increased minimum wage in metro Aurora would eat too far into company profits or even force a business to close.

Any business that depends on the labor of people forced to live in abject poverty isn’t a viable business any more than one that depends on selling stolen merchandise. It’s unconscionable.

The new law allows Aurora and other municipalities in the six-county metro area to create a special agreement to simultaneously raise the minimum wage here, while allowing everywhere else in the state to make that determination for themselves.

The metro counties should convene and start that process immediately, creating a wage district that makes sense for the region.

If some or all of the rest of the communities turn back an opportunity to raise the minimum wage, Aurora should strike out on its own, leading the way to humane, employment equity in the area.

Numerous studies have dispelled myths that raising the minimum wage stymies employment or personal wealth. It simply allows people working just as hard or harder than anyone else to be paid closer to what their labor is worth. It means that local businesses must pay for what they receive from their employees rather than push extra costs for government subsidies and aid onto the backs of statewide taxpayers.

This alone won’t stop the region’s mushrooming affordability problem, but it will slow problem as market housing forces adjust to a rapidly growing metroplex.