Voters in Arkansas and Missouri will decide Tuesday whether to significantly raise the minimum wage in their state. The two states, both of which went heavily for President Trump in 2016, offer a test case of whether there is appetite in solidly red states for a minimum wage above $10.
Arkansas will vote on whether to gradually raise its current minimum wage of $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour by 2021. Missouri voters are deciding whether to steadily increase the state’s minimum wage of $7.85 an hour to $12 an hour by 2023. Arizona, which did not vote as strongly for Trump, is the only other red state with a higher minimum wage (voters there approved raising the state’s $10.50 minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020).
There’s a good chance that Arkansas and Missouri will approve the higher wages, even though most Democratic candidates in the two states support it and most Republican candidates do not. Since 1996, no state has voted down a minimum wage increase that has appeared on a statewide ballot, a signal of the appeal for raises across the political spectrum.
The federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — hasn’t been increased since 2009, which is why many states and cities are raising the floor on pay on their own. The Labor Department reported Friday that wages are growing at their fastest clip in almost a decade, but not all workers are feeling it, especially as rent and gas expenses rise.
A University of Arkansas poll released last week showed that 67 percent support the wage increase. A poll at the end of October by Missouri Scout, a private news service, found 58 percent in favor. Numerous people interviewed for this article said that while their states are conservative, people are very aware of the poverty around them and want to find ways to help.
“Everyone knows people living on the minimum wage who can’t live. It’s their sister, mother, father or friend down at the deer hunting camp. They get it,” said the Rev. Steve Copley, executive director of Interfaith Arkansas and a supporter of the minimum wage increase.
If Arkansas approves the hike to $11 an hour, the Southern state will effectively have the highest minimum wage in the nation because costs and salaries are far lower in Arkansas than places such as California and New York, said Jeremy Horpedahl, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas. He notes that about a quarter of workers — 300,000 people -— in his state would get a raise if the ballot initiative passes.
“We’re going into uncharted territory,” Horpedahl said. “An $11 wage in Arkansas, one of the poorest states in the country, is similar to a $15 wage in California.”
The ballot initiatives in both states have faced strong opposition from the business community, with some business owners arguing that increasing the minimum wage will make these states less competitive, compared with their neighbors such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky and Tennessee, all of which have a $7.25 minimum wage.
There are also concerns that business owners might not hire as many workers, especially teenagers, formerly incarcerated and other lower-skilled workers who usually have a difficult time getting jobs.
“The big problem if this passes is going to be for young people, especially minorities. They’ll have a tougher time finding their first jobs, and it’s going to encourage automation,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, which fought to have the ballot measure removed but lost in court.
Zook says he has heard from business owners and even nonprofits who say that they hire three high-schoolers at the $8.50 hourly wage but would hire only one or two at $11 an hour.
Studies in other states that raised their minimum wages have generally not shown large job losses, but the concern is that Arkansas is poised to increase the minimum wage a lot higher than most states and cities have so far, both in nominal terms and relative to the median pay in the state.
Some business owners say they are willing to pay the higher costs to see their state, which is the sixth-poorest in the nation, improve.
“It matters to me, because it’s the right ting to do. More income means they’ll have more to spend, which will be good for the overall economy,” said Meg Sebastian, owner of Sebastian Tech Solutions in Jonesboro, in northeast Arkansas.
Sebastian has some employees who make $10 or $11 an hour and says she knows she would have to raise their pay to ensure she continues to get the “cream of the entry-level crop.”
For Maureka Henderson, the vote on Tuesday could be the difference between whether she can eventually repair her car. Henderson and her husband and two daughters share a home with her mother in Pine Bluff, south of Little Rock. Henderson earns $10 an hour working as a personal care aide to a 96-year-old woman.
Henderson, 39, says that it’s the best job she has ever had but that the pay isn’t enough to get by. She works five hours a day, seven days a week and gets no benefits. Her 1997 Ford Explorer sits idle outside because she and her husband don’t have the money to replace the transmission.
If approved, the Arkansas ballot initiative would raise the minimum wage to $9.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2019, $10 on Jan. 10, 2020, and $11 on Jan. 1, 2021. Economists say that as the minimum wage increases, even workers earning slightly more would probably get a raise, as well, to keep pace.
“It would mean a lot for me to get an extra dollar an hour,” said Henderson, who plans to vote Tuesday. “I’d like to take my 8-year-old daughter to Little Rock to see the Children’s Museum and trampoline park, but we can’t do that right now.”