Sen. John F. Kerry called yesterday for a 36 percent hike in the federal minimum wage over the next three years, contending that such an increase would help 7 million working people escape poverty.

The current federal minimum, established eight years ago, is $5.15 an hour. Kerry supports legislation introduced in April by fellow Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) that would raise the rate in steps to $7 an hour by 2007.

The presumptive presidential nominee touted his plan during a morning stop at Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus, as well as during a day of events that included a "Women for Kerry" lunch at a Washington hotel that raised $1.3 million for his campaign.

Kerry's advocacy of a higher minimum wage was part of a week-long series of speeches and proposals designed to highlight economic issues for families and the working class. Democrats have typically advocated increasing the minimum, which plays well with less-affluent voters. Republicans tend to oppose such proposals, saying that increases hurt the least skilled workers by forcing employers to cut back when labor costs rise.

In fact, Kerry and President Bush seem to agree that some increase in the federal minimum is warranted, but they disagree over such critical details as the size, timing and way it would be phased in.

Bush, for example, wants a provision enabling states to opt out of a federal law and choose not to raise the rate. "The president supports a reasonable proposal that would increase the minimum wage over an extended period of time and that doesn't place an unreasonable burden on small businesses," Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush's campaign, said yesterday. He declined to elaborate.

Kerry, however, portrayed an increase as economic justice. "If we can have trillions of dollars of tax cuts for the wealthiest people, we can fight for a raise in the minimum wage," he said in Alexandria. In the eight years since Congress mandated the last increase, Kerry said, inflation has wiped out any gains. The current minimum wage, he said, "is lower in value than at any time since 1949, when Harry Truman was president."

But many industry groups remain strongly opposed to raising federally mandated wages, especially during an economic recovery.

"It is absurd to propose a minimum wage hike which will negatively impact small businesses employing people in entry-level jobs," Rob Green, vice president of the National Restaurant Association, said in a statement. He added that it would "impede job creation and will ultimately hurt the people it is designed to help. It is baffling that Sen. Kerry would suggest such a dramatic and punitive increase during a time of economic recovery."

The period since the last increase is the second longest stretch without an increase since the minimum wage law was established in 1938, said Jared Bernstein of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, one of several economists allied with the Kerry campaign who supports an increase.

Contrary to the image of teenagers in summer jobs, about 60 percent of minimum wage earners are adult women, and about one-third of that group are African American or Hispanic, many of whom are the sole providers for their families, said Eileen Applebaum, an economist at Rutgers University.

The proposed increase of $1.85 an hour by 2007, she said, would translate into about $3,800 per year in additional earnings for a full-time minimum wage worker, the equivalent of "nine months of groceries, four months of rent or a year of community college tuition." A minimum wage employee working 40 hours a week would be paid $10,300 a year now if he or she worked 50 weeks per year.

One aspect of Kerry's presentation at the community college seemed to fizzle. When he asked if there was anyone in the audience of about 75 making minimum wage, only one young woman raised her hand. But the woman, a recent high-school graduate who said she worked at Food Lion, said she was getting $7 an hour, Kerry's goal for the minimum wage.

John F. Kerry campaigns at Northern Virginia Community College's Alexandria campus.