The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The $15 minimum wage is not dead

Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The stage is set for a defining battle among Democrats over increasing the minimum wage.

On Feb. 27, House Democrats passed their version of the American Rescue Plan, including an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Last week, eight Democratic senators voted to support the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling requiring the removal of the wage increase from the measure. This is a setback, but the debate over the minimum wage is far from over.

That’s because Democrats cannot afford to let the fight for $15 die. Raising the minimum wage is not some gift or reward to anyone. It is a moral commitment to make sure hard-working people are paid enough in America to take care of themselves and their children.

Consider some numbers. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since 2009 — that’s roughly $15,080 annually if you work 40 hours a week, every week of the year. Work eight hours a day, every day, without weekends, and you get to about $21,100. It’s outrageous that a worker with two children could work 365 days of the year and still hover around the poverty line.

And let’s be clear: A $15 wage does not leave anyone rolling in cash. It just gives a worker a decent chance to pay the rent, buy groceries, and cover bus fare and other routine expenses.

And just who are these workers? Well, about 60 percent of those who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage are women, disproportionately Black women and women of color — the undeniable, reliable base of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats — up to and including President Biden — were explicit in calling for a $15 minimum wage in their 2020 campaigns. The two newest senators from Georgia won close elections by drawing a line in favor of $15. Simply put, Senate Democrats hold their committee chairs on the backs of those who fought for $15.

These facts are not lost on progressives, who have long been pushing for the increase. No parliamentary ruling should stand in the way of making Biden’s campaign promise a reality. And some half-measure increase designed to attract 10 Republican senators won’t cut it, either.

For Democrats, it’s $15 or bust.

After all, it’s not such a big lift, politically or economically. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), 32 million workers — 21 percent of the workforce — would be affected by a phased-in increase of the minimum wage. In Arizona, where the state minimum wage is $12.15, an estimated 835,000 workers would see an increase in their wages over the next four years. In West Virginia, about 35 percent of the workforce would see a gradual increase in their wages up from the current state minimum of $8.75.

The arguments against $15 are perplexing. Studies are mixed regarding job loss. More concerning is that Republicans and a handful of Democrats would rather have the federal government subsidize employers who survive by keeping workers in poverty, leaving employees to depend on government assistance to stay afloat. A recent analysis by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that 45 percent of full-time workers affected by an increase in the minimum wage receive some form of government assistance, from Medicaid to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. EPI estimates the savings in government assistance would be $13.4 billion to $31 billion.

This is not an argument against government assistance; it is an acknowledgment that taxpayers are making up the difference when employers do not pay their workers a living wage.

Recent polling paints a clear picture, too most Americans support an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. When a minimum-wage increase appears on the ballot, it’s a winner — most recently in Florida, where voters approved $15 by 2026 with 60 percent of the vote last year. The public pressure is mounting, as it should, from threats of primary challenges to public accountability campaigns. Step by step, lawmakers are being brought in line with the voters.

The American Rescue Plan may have been the first fight, but it will not be the last. A second reconciliation bill is expected this year, and it’s time for Senate Democrats to find a way to get this done. Whatever the strategy, there are options: Bring recalcitrant Democrats in line. Use the upcoming infrastructure bill to incentivize them. Or, bring it on, overrule the parliamentarian or end the filibuster.

House Democrats balanced the equities and made the choice in favor of reducing poverty and valuing the lives of low-wage workers. Senate Democrats must do the same — and soon.

Read more:

George F. Will: The minimum-wage debate is a mildly encouraging folly

Catherine Rampell: The Senate parliamentarian’s ruling on the minimum wage did Democrats a favor

Greg Sargent: The minimum-wage fiasco will hurt millions. But it will hit red states hardest.

The Post’s View: A $15 minimum wage won’t happen. Democrats should get to work on a more modest raise.

Eugene Robinson: A $15 minimum wage would cost employers. Inequality costs all of us.