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Sue Malek

Malek

Income inequality is damaging the lives of families and the future of our country. Workers deserve to make a living wage, take time off when they’re sick without going bankrupt, buy essential medications and food, and go to the doctor without breaking the bank.

While corporations and the wealthiest one percent experience record profits, average workers have lost their jobs and businesses and remain unemployed, and many have lost their homes, and their retirements. If they are lucky enough to still have jobs, many have seen their wages frozen, and now work without paid sick leave or vacation time, and certainly without pension plans.

Bloomberg News reports the top 20 percent of American households saw their incomes grow more than $8,000 each year from 2008 to 2012, while those in the lowest 20 percent saw wages decline by $275 each of those years.

Families Out of Balance, a new report released by the Alliance for a Just Society and Montana Organizing Project, clearly shows that Montana’s low minimum wage leaves workers not just without extras, but without essentials. Our state’s 2013 minimum wage of $7.80 an hour provides $1,248 a month, before taxes.

On average, Americans spend a third of their income on housing, but housing for less than $400 a month is scarce to nonexistent in most Montana communities. The remaining $700 or so of income must pay for utilities, food, transportation, car repairs and car insurance, medical care, clothing, and all incidental expenses, ideally with money left over for savings. Montana’s minimum wage makes up less than half the amount a single adult needs and one-third of what a single adult with two children needs to make ends meet.

When Montana legislators failed to accept millions of federal dollars to expand Medicaid, we failed our families. Montana is providing no help for low-income workers to purchase health insurance, and now 70,000 Montanans fall in the donut hole between Medicaid eligibility and eligibility for the federal tax subsidies many of us receive through the Affordable Care Act. Without access to affordable health care, these families easily become saddled with medical debt.

A lack of investment by the state has also left thousands of college graduates in Montana burdened with student debt, with an average debt load of over $27,000 – up 40 percent since 2008. That increase in debt leaves graduates making payments for years to come, with less income available to spend on other expenses. The Alliance report shows that most low-income workers prioritize making debt payments on time, cutting back on other necessities to cover their student loans or medical bills.

The Montana Legislature will convene in early January 2015. Legislators will again consider expanding Medicaid eligibility so low-income families, like the rest of us, have free preventive care, annual blood panel screenings, physical exams and immunizations. Health care reform was passed by the U.S. Congress because insurance companies, health care providers, corporations and businesses know we must detect health issues early and prevent the need for catastrophic health care as much as possible.

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Preventive care will lower the cost of health care in the United States and in Montana, take the burden of providing health insurance off businesses, and improve health outcomes for everyone. It will also provide thousands of good paying health care jobs with benefits in Montana. These new Montana employees will stimulate job growth throughout our economy.

Working families in Montana deserve decent pay for their hard work. They deserve a minimum wage that equals a living wage. Most of all, they deserve the same access to affordable health care the rest of us receive.

Montana, let’s stand up for workers, our neighbors and friends who are doing the best they can to raise their families and pay their bills. Let’s claim the federal tax dollars we’ve paid and follow the lead of other states that have expanded Medicaid. In 2015, let’s invest in Montana workers and expand Medicaid here at home.

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Sue Malek represents Senate District 46 in Missoula. She recently retired after 24 years as an academic adviser at the University of Montana.

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