Norwich — Raising the state's minimum wage would help women pay for essential goods and services for their families, but also could cause worries that low-income families might lose equally essential government assistance to help make ends meet, panelists said during a forum Thursday headed by Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman.
About 30 women in positions ranging from government to health care and human services discussed the benefits and possible consequences of raising the minimum wage in Connecticut to $10.10 by 2017. The session was the third forum headed by Wyman being held throughout the state on various issues.
"When we organize these forums, we consider places where there are women in leadership," said Teresa C. Younger, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, referring to Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey, the city's first female mayor, who was elected in November.
Hinchey said the discussion is very relevant to Norwich and her goal is to raise the quality of life for low-income residents to the point where they "never" need government assistance in the future.
Wyman said about 90,000 Connecticut residents currently are earning the minimum wage, and everyone realizes that even raising the rate to $10.10 by 2017 — the goal announced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and President Obama — wouldn't raise people out of poverty.
A companion issue is the persistent earning gap between men and women in the state. A report released in November by the Gender Wage Gap Task Force found significant earning gaps between men and women. Statewide in 2011, on average, women earned 76 to 78 cents for the average dollar earned by men.
State Department of Labor Commissioner Sharon Palmer said it's a false perception that the minimum wage is for "young folks just starting out." She said the average minimum wage earner is 35 years old, and 60 percent are women.
However, Palmer said the wage gap report found that the lower the wage earner, the closer the equality in wages between men and women.
Wyman added that it's also erroneous to say that raising the minimum wage would hurt business.
"These employees are not going to take their money and invest it in a foreign country," Wyman said. "They are going to invest it back into the community."
But several participants in Thursday's forum pointed to conflicting goals and consequences of plans to raise the minimum wage in the state.
Increasing the minimum wage could decrease the need for entitlements and ultimately could save taxpayers money on programs such as food stamps and heating oil assistance, they said.
"People want to pay their own bills," said Lee Ann Gomes, social work supervisor for Norwich Human Services. "They don't want to be on entitlements."
Sharon Giammarco, a service coordinator for Reliance House, a nonprofit agency that serves people with mental illness, said part of her job is helping clients apply for food stamps. She received food stamps herself, until she received a 1 percent raise at work. "They cut me off," she said.
A single mother, Giammarco said she had to move in with her sister to save money, and she got a second job. Now, with that income, she is on the verge of losing state HUSKY health insurance for her child.
Raising the minimum wage could carry the same risk, that people could be kicked off of assistance programs they still need, several people at the forum agreed.
Palmer and state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said state officials are discussing changes to programs so that people who would "fall off the cliff" of eligibility could be offered sliding scales of assistance. Another idea would be to allow a grace period so that families could continue receiving assistance for a period and would have time to adjust to losing aid.