A new analysis from the Brookings Institution, done at my request, underscores this with depressing clarity: It finds that approximately 24 million people would see their wages rise if the federal minimum wage were lifted to $15 per hour by 2025, as the current proposal would do.
By extension, of course, that’s also roughly how many Americans stand to get left behind if and when it is not included in the Senate version.
The minimum-wage workforce is sometimes treated as a marginally sized one. But the truth is that the population that will remain in this precarious low-wage netherworld due to this failure is quite substantial.
Brookings calculated the size of the U.S. population that earned less than $15 per hour in 2019 and resided in states that aren’t raising their minimums to $15 themselves.
The top-line finding: More than 23.8 million people made less than $15 per hour in 2019, a reliable guide to the population that would benefit from a federal minimum-wage hike to that level. The calculation is based on an analysis of census data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute.
This is better than merely counting those who earn the current federal minimum of $7.25. That’s because the larger population is a better approximation of the number who would see a wage hike under the proposal. And now that it will fail, the wages of the larger population will remain below $15, in many cases further below it.
“People don’t realize how many people make very low wages in the U.S.,” Mark Muro, the Brookings analyst who conducted this study, told me, noting that additional Brookings data has also illustrated this problem.
“Extremely low-wage work is ubiquitous in our country, and there simply aren’t enough good jobs to go around,” Muro continued, adding that if anything, covid-19 might have made this worse.
Red states will be hit hardest
The Brookings analysis also found that red states have disproportionately large numbers of people who will be left behind by this failure.
Of the 23.8 million people whose 2019 wages would be lifted with a federal hike, around 12.4 million reside in the 22 states with two Republican senators, Brookings found. That number is more significant than it seems, since those states tend to be less populous.
By contrast, only 7.3 million of those workers live in the 23 states that have two Democratic senators. And the remaining 4.2 million live in states with one senator from each party or in D.C.
Here’s what this looks like in map form:
As the map shows, some of the states with the largest numbers of these low-wage workers, relative to their populations, are in the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Plains and Western states.
“Low-wage work is everywhere, but it’s increasingly a Southern and Midwestern problem, policy-wise,” Muro told me.
What this really illustrates is that this is largely a failure of Republican governance, on several levels.
A big GOP fail
First, as Muro pointed out, one key reason so many people who would be impacted are in red states is that some blue states have already passed minimum-wage hikes that are on track to reach $15 on their own.
While a number of red states have raised their minimum wage, none (except Florida) are on track to $15. That means a lot of people in red states that have raised their minimum wages will still get left behind by Congress’s failure.
Plus, this takes a large number of blue-state residents out of the calculus of who will ultimately be hurt by this failure. “More coastal and Democratic states have begun to move their wage standards towards $15,” Muro said.
Meanwhile, virtually all Democratic senators favor the $15 minimum wage, while just about all Republican senators oppose it. (A handful have proposed less-ambitious hikes.)
It’s true that some progressives are angry at the Democratic leadership over this failure: They want Democrats to get around the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling that the hike can’t pass via a simple majority by reconciliation.
But even if they did, there aren’t 50 Democratic votes to pass it, with Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) opposed. Their opposition is dispiriting: West Virginia is a very poor state, and as James Downie points out, Arizona has already passed one of the highest minimum wages in the country, so Sinema is denying the same benefit to others.
But still, a huge part of this failure can be chalked up to the fact that the entire Senate GOP caucus opposes it. Their own constituents are the losers.
The working-class party?
Republicans like to claim the GOP has become a working-class party. To buttress this, they rail against large corporations as bastions of “wokeism” and blast Democrats as the party of coastal elites, who are pitted against the virtuous heartlanders Republicans supposedly champion.
But as Eric Levitz points out, the minimum-wage debate is clarifying. Republicans oppose a hike on the grounds that it will cause small-business job loss. But data are not at all conclusive on this point. Regardless, this really shows that the GOP sees its “populist” base as residing among business owners of many different sizes, who are being prioritized over the fortunes of the working poor:
There are far more workers in the U.S. than small-business owners. Condemning a large swath of workers to economic precarity so that a much smaller strata can carry on mining profits from their powerlessness does not improve the American people’s general welfare.
As Levitz concludes: “There is no unity of interest between the provincial business owners the GOP actually represents and the working people they claim to champion.” This new study strips this dynamic bare.