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Op-ed: Raising the minimum wage makes sense for Utah's Navajo Nation

As it stands, 42.9 percent of tribal members living on the reservation have an income of less than $8,350 per year.
As it stands, 42.9 percent of tribal members living on the reservation have an income of less than $8,350 per year.
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The Utah Legislature's 2018 General Session is now underway, and with it comes a variety of legislation waiting to be considered. As Utahns, watching from the sidelines, we’re once again reminded of the power each elected representative has to address important issues that need hammering out. One such proposal that’s popped up again, a topic Utah sorely needs to address, is raising the state’s minimum wage.

This sticky issue has been too contentious when it shouldn’t have been. While living in Utah all my life, I’ve come to be proud of the impressive way Utah comes near to being self-sustaining in terms of economic wealth. But coming from an economically suppressed area of Utah has given me a unique perspective. The Navajo Nation extends into the southeastern portion of the state of Utah, and its poverty rates are among the highest in the nation.

As it stands, 42.9 percent of tribal members living on the reservation have incomes of less than $8,350 per year. In Utah, the poverty rate of Native Americans is 28.9 percent. I’ve seen the efforts of my Navajo peers who are committed to bringing up their own standards of living. Work is indeed scarce out in rural Utah. Many proud Navajo workers along the Utah Navajo strip find work off the reservation, working in the tourism sector, energy development and retail. Not only do they need to travel to reach this kind of work, most of these jobs aren’t exactly high-paying. In fact, many working in the tourism sector need to work two jobs just to stay afloat.

In addition to working for little, every family still pays the same sales tax. Although it’s not much, a simple adjustment to the minimum wage here in Utah could immensely assist the state in terms of tax collections.

Increasing the minimum wage would offer Utah’s poverty-stricken families a way to increase their spending power over the counter or at the pump.

This year’s legislative session is also considering increasing the gas tax, which directly funds our Utah Department of Transportation. Southern San Juan County has seen road improvements to the county and state roadways, particularly on SR-162 running between Montezuma Creek and Aneth. This part of the state sorely needed improvements three years ago, and I’d like to thank the Utah Department of Transportation and the transportation commission for working closely with the county commissioners in a three-year effort to improve our roads. If our lawmakers can see the need to adjust the gas tax rates to offset the ever-rising inflation rate of the 21st century, why shouldn’t the living wage move right along with it?

Nineteen states, including Utah, still use the federal minimum wage floor of $7.25. Raising the wage rate by just $3 — only 300 cents — wouldn’t break the financial back of our state’s business community. It would help our workforce stay nationally competitive by incentivizing the poorest to gain employment. The median hourly wage for all occupations in Utah is $15.80, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Raising the minimum wage to $10.25 would still only be a modest increase.

I believe this would benefit the state of Utah, rather than hinder it. I would like to see an increase of the minimum wage be seriously considered.

Ryan Benally is a citizen of the Navajo Nation from Montezuma Creek, Utah, and has a degree in financial management.