In the 1960s, the federal government marshaled its resources to fight a “War on Poverty.” More recently, however, we’ve been fighting what amounts to a “War on the Poor” — a sustained campaign of denial and neglect that we can begin to end by raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The current figure of $7.25 — unchanged since 2009 — is so absurdly low that the country effectively has no federal minimum wage at all. As of May 1, when Virginia’s minimum wage rises, 29 states will mandate higher wage floors. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, a $7.25-per-hour rate adds up to $290 before taxes. Try stretching that to cover a week’s worth of food, housing, clothing and transportation for an individual, let alone a family. It can’t be done.
Nor is it realistic to expect workers to survive, much less thrive, on $10 an hour, as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposes, or $11 an hour, which Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) would prefer. The richest country on Earth can surely afford to accept the following proposition: Anyone who works a full-time job should be able to afford at least a working-class life. At less than $15 an hour, that simply is not possible.
Republicans cite the principle of federalism in arguing that states and cities should be able to set their own minimum wage levels according to local conditions. Indeed, many states do impose higher minimum wages, and some cities, such as Seattle and D.C., are on a path to $15. But five states — Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana — have no minimum wage at all, meaning employers are bound only by the $7.25 federal standard. And Wyoming and Georgia bizarrely set their minimum wage at just $5.15; again, the federal rule applies to jobs covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Federal policy recognizes that the current minimum wage is not a living wage. We help low-wage workers survive with tax credits, food assistance, subsidized housing and other sorely needed programs. But why the reluctance to require employers to compensate an honest day’s work with an honest day’s pay?
Other important principles once championed by the Republican Party are being undermined by this hesitance: Self-reliance. Self-respect. The idea of work as its own reward. The notion of idleness as damaging to self and to society.
Setting a nationwide floor of $15 an hour would require many employers to fine-tune their business plans. The cost of a Big Mac might marginally rise.
Yes, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that 1.4 million workers could lose their jobs, although many other economists argue that the impact on employment would be marginal or nonexistent. The CBO also estimates that the net impact would be to lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty.
Look beyond the fact that the federal poverty level — a family of four making a penny more than $26,500 annually is not considered poor — should really be called the federal penury level. And leave aside that a full-time, minimum-wage job would earn only $15,080 per year. Consider instead how seldom we even talk about poverty today, as though the poor have magically become invisible or ceased to exist.
Activists are trying to get us to pay attention. The Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has been holding virtual and socially distanced events across the country — including in Manchin’s home state — to argue that a $15 minimum wage is a vital component of any effective covid-19 relief package. “The truth of the matter is it will lift millions of people out of low wages and poverty,” he says, taking a more realistic view of where the poverty line should be drawn than the federal government does.
President Biden included the $15 wage in his proposed relief legislation. But because the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the boost cannot be approved through the arcane “reconciliation” process requiring only 51 votes, Democrats would have to pursue it independently.
But I fail to see the political downside of supporting the measure for any Democrats — or even for the few reasonable Republicans left in the Senate. Raising the minimum wage is a popular idea; a Vox poll this week showed that 62 percent of voters support the relief bill’s plan for a gradual increase to $15 by 2025. Some of the nation’s biggest employers have already made the move: Costco this week announced that it would raise its starting hourly wage to $16, outflanking major corporate rivals. Small-business owners would have four years to adjust and adapt.
And the moral calculus could not be clearer. A $15 minimum wage would cost employers. Growing inequality costs all of us even more.
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