Economic Inequity in PA

In describing the political landscape of Pennsylvania for people who are not familiar with the state, I often say it’s a microcosm of our country overall. It’s progressive in the major urban areas and surrounding suburbs, and fairly to extremely conservative throughout the remaining, more rural parts of the state. 

And among the many characteristics Pennsylvania shares with the nation as a whole is its economic inequity. The gap between the rich and poor nationwide and in the state has been widening since the 1970s. Indeed, back in 2015, research showed that the richest 1% of workers in Pennsylvania earned about 22 times more than the bottom 99%. That number may have decreased a bit in recent years due to the pandemic, but if Republicans have their way, the gap between rich and poor will not substantively close any time soon.

One reason for this widening gap – especially in states like Pennsylvania – is the failure to raise the minimum wage to protect workers’ purchasing power. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has been stuck at the federal rate of $7.25 per hour since 2009. This has made the state far less competitive than its neighboring states, such as New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and New York, which are currently on track for, or have enacted a $15 minimum wage. Democrats have been trying to rectify this for years. Back in 2019, Pennsylvania Republicans blocked an effort to raise the state’s minimum wage to $9.50. And as recently as July 2023, the Democratic-controlled state House passed a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. As of now, the bill hasn’t made it out of committee for a potential vote in the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Republicans argue that increasing the minimum wage would burden small family-owned businesses. Democrats point out that the state has enough money and the power to offset any hardships (e.g., through small business tax credits).

Another reason for the widening gap between rich and poor is employers’ ability to discriminate based on gender, race and ethnicity with respect to wages. Women in Pennsylvania make 79 cents for every dollar a white man makes. It’s worse for Black and Latina women who make 66 and 55 cents respectively. The gender wage gap has remained relatively constant for the last 20 years and is the result of many factors, including occupational segregation, bias against working mothers and direct pay discrimination.

Democrats in the state House, under the leadership of Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia), recently passed an overhaul of Pennsylvania’s Equal Pay Law, to combat unequal pay in the workplace. The original 1959 bill forbids wage discrimination on the basis of sex. The new bill would expand to include race and ethnicity. It also provides more detailed definitions for allowable pay differentials. For instance, it specifies that job title alone is not sufficient justification for unequal pay and that family and medical leave cannot be counted against seniority. In addition, it provides certain protections to prevent employers from low-balling workers’ pay by forbidding them from requiring prospective employees to disclose their wage history or retaliating against employees who discuss their wages with other workers.

With Republicans still in control of the PA state Senate, it’s not likely that the minimum wage and equal pay bills will be enacted during the current legislative session. 

This is why Represent PA invests in strong women incumbents and first-time candidates for PA’s State Legislature who align with progressive priorities, including the need to combat economic inequity in PA. Join us in this effort. 

– Karen Gelman, Represent PA Volunteer