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State Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said a rise in minimum wage is necessary to help get people off of public assistance. 

One state official is renewing the call to raise minimum wage in Pennsylvania, saying the current $7.25 hourly rate is “perpetuating the cycle of poverty.”

Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said the current minimum wage traps people into dependence on public assistance; then, the system shames them for not doing better.

“We need to stop punishing people who work minimum and poverty-wage jobs and instead recognize the value that all workers create for Pennsylvania’s economy and our communities,” Miller said.

Earlier this year, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed moving the hourly rate to $12, effective July 1. Annual increases would raise it to $15 hourly by 2025.

In Fayette County, nearly 19% of its residents fall below the federal poverty guidelines, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 15% of Greene County's workers fall into that same category. 

Both are above the state average of 13.1%, while Westmoreland and Washington counties are below at 10.3% and 9.7% respectively.

For a single person, $12,490 is considered living in poverty, according to the federal guidelines for 2019. A family of five is considered living in poverty at $30,170.

According to the DHS, a full-time, minimum wage job pays about $15,000 annually before taxes. At $12 an hour, a full-time minimum wage worker would gross $24,960; at $15 hourly, that would rise to $31,200 in pre-tax income.

When the proposal was made in February, state Sen. Pat Stefano and state Reps. Matt Dowling and Bud Cook said they understand the need for an increase, but struggled with the significant burden such an extreme increase would put on small business owners.

Area business owners agreed, questioning how more than doubling the wage over the next six years would allow them to continue operating with the same number of employees.

Miller said there are about 2 million workers statewide who earn less than the proposed $15 hourly. While many try to get ahead, “low wages can make that impossible,” she said.

The proposal also includes increased minimum wages for tipped workers, who currently make $2.83 an hour and must survive on income made from tips.

A DHS release cited a study by the Economic Policy Institute that found that raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020 would reduce public assistance spending by $17 billion annually. Raising the wage to $12 this year would lead to more than $150 million saved on Medicaid spending in fiscal year 2019-2020, according the agency.

Miller was also joined by supporters from the state House and Senate, representatives from SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and a caregiver making minimum wage.

“I love taking care of people, but I hate that I don’t make enough to take care of myself and my two children,” said Grace Johnson, a caregiver who has received just one pay increase in her 13-year career. “I hate that I have to depend on government agencies and food banks and welfare and Section 8. It’s hard to work a job that you love but doesn't support you financially.”

“Pennsylvania is in a care crisis and we cannot reverse it until we make sure there are enough women and men to do this important work,” said Matthew Yarnell, president SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania. “As long as we allow direct care workers to live in poverty, isolated and without proper training, we are failing our seniors and people with disabilities.”

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