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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.

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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