One of the reasons Louisiana ranks low on "good" lists and high on "bad" lists is our state's crushing level of poverty. Of all the problems confronting our state, none has proved to be as intractable as poverty — and none has led to more societal ills. Crime. Truancy. Teenage pregnancy. High incarceration rates. Low educational attainment. These problems all stem from Louisiana's high poverty rate.
Reducing poverty has been a stated goal of every governor in memory, but few have had the courage to do something about it. Last week, Gov. John Bel Edwards took up that mantle by testifying in favor of two bills that address Louisiana's poverty rate in a real way. One would require equal pay for men and women, and the other gradually would raise the minimum wage in Louisiana to $8.50 an hour. Both bills cleared the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee after Edwards' testimony. We urge the Senate — and then the House — to pass both bills.
Senate Bill 254 by state Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, would make equal pay for men and women the law in Louisiana. The House has a companion bill by Reps. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; and Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe. In addition to requiring equal pay, the bills would reward employers who adopt fair pay policies by protecting them from vexatious litigation.
The arguments for equal pay are compelling. Louisiana ranks last in the nation for women's pay compared to that of men for the same work. Louisiana women are generally better educated than Louisiana men, yet they face the nation's largest pay gap: For every dollar a man earns here, a woman earns 65 cents for the same job. (The national average is 79 cents.) The disparity is even greater for women of color — and in no parish do women earn the same as men. Above all, paying women less means keeping kids in poverty. "We can't simply talk about family values," Edwards said of equal pay. "We must implement policies that value families."
On a similar track, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, has authored Senate Bill 269, which would increase Louisiana's $7.25 minimum wage to $8.00 on Jan. 1, 2017 and to $8.50 on Jan. 1, 2018. A companion bill has been filed in the House by state Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans. Louisiana is one of five states that does not have its own minimum wage and instead uses the federal minimum wage. Moreover, women comprise more than 80 percent of minimum wage earners.
"We have a real chance to make a real difference in the lives of families and children all across Louisiana by raising the minimum wage," Edwards said of the measure. "When our families do better, our state does better." We agree.
Poverty is the unresolved issue that haunts every governor, lawmaker and citizen who cares — and dares — to take up the cause of making Louisiana better. Enacting equal pay and raising the minimum wage will make Louisiana better.