It seems certain San Diego’s City Council will put to voters the decision to increase the minimum wage locally.

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But if it appears on the ballot in November, will it be a bump up to $11, $12, $13, something else? What if, instead of picking a number, they proposed an indexed rate that would rise or fall in accordance with the federal poverty level? Then instead of arguing over a number, we could debate the principle.

Would voters agree that a person working a 40-hour week at minimum wage should be compensated above the poverty level? I’d hope so. Many people have expressed support for that idea. After all, what’s the argument that an honest week’s work should leave you in poverty?

Consider a family of two working adults and two children. Assuming both parents work full time, we need a formula that ensures they receive compensation of at least 10 percent above the local poverty level. The referendum could put a process in place whereby an independent arbiter, such as the city auditor, sets the minimum wage six to nine months before the start of every year based on specified, objective criteria.

Voice of San Diego has reported that the federal poverty level is an inadequate measure for San Diego, due to the above average cost of living here. We would need to base our formula on a locally appropriate poverty level – but how to calculate it? One objective source is the U.S. Census Bureau, which publishes a cost of living index for selected urban areas, including San Diego. The most recent account in 2010 found San Diego’s price level was not surprisingly 32.3 percent above the average U.S. city. We could apply that variable to the federal poverty level for our purposes.

If minimum wage workers earned a wage above the local poverty level, they’d probably no longer qualify for various government assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Instead, employers would be required to ensure that lowest-paid workers earn enough to feed, clothe and shelter themselves without government assistance. As former businessman and political activist Ron Unz has pointed out, under the current system, taxpayers essentially subsidize low-paying businesses through various assistance programs for these workers. That doesn’t need to be the case.

Some have suggested that increasing the minimum wage would be counterproductive. And, of course, that argument has been countered by others. No one appears to dispute, however, that when adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage is significantly lower now than it was in the 1960s.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we as a community knew that in the future all who work at least 40 hours a week at minimum wage would be able to live a dignified life, free of poverty and taxpayer-funded government assistance? Increasing the minimum wage is a proactive effort, but how we do so will dictate its sustained public impact.

Chris Brewster is a resident of Pacific Beach and president of two nonprofits. Brewster’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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