A $12.50-an-hour wage for large retailers was controversial among D.C. elected officials. But even some of the most vocal critics of that legislation agreed with supporters on one key point: The District’s minimum wage needs to be raised. The D.C. Council is now considering several bills to boost the city’s minimum wage, and last week, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) joined forces with officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties pushing to raise the minimum wage in those jurisdictions. Mayor Vincent Gray has said this is a priority for him as well.
Now is the time for D.C. residents to make sure our elected leaders do not backslide, as the public debate shifts from the Large Retailer Accountability Act to what might be called a Keep Your Word on Raising the Minimum Wage Accountability Act.
There are breadwinners in the vast majority of the District’s low-income households, many of them working full time. But too many of these residents cannot afford to live in the city on their current pay. At $8.25 an hour — the minimum wage in the city — someone with two children who works full time earns $17,160 a year, well below the federal poverty line. Others work part time because they have jobs in retail or other industries where that is the norm. With skyrocketing housing costs and flat incomes for many people, raising wages is critical to helping many residents continue to call the District home.
The bills under consideration would increase the minimum wage to a range of $10.25 to $12.50 an hour, in time increments of two to four years. Two of the bills also call for automatic inflation adjustments so that pay doesn’t remain stagnant while the cost of living rises. One bill would raise the $2.77 minimum wage for tipped workers, which has not been adjusted for years.
The vast majority of D.C. residents support efforts to boost low wages. A recent Hart Research poll found that seven of 10 residents supported the Large Retailer Accountability Act, and six of 10 would like to have seen a minimum-wage increase plus the more targeted living wage. Clearly, most residents will back a stand-alone minimum-wage hike.
An increase will add vitality to the D.C. economy by putting money in the pockets of people who are most likely to spend it. A $10.10 wage — the rate proposed for the entire country by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) — would help 36,000 D.C. workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The estimated $58 million in increased wages would be spent at markets, clothing shops and hardware stores, aiding D.C. businesses large and small. The direct and indirect effects would help thousands of children. And arguments that minimum-wage earners are dominated by teenagers don’t hold up to scrutiny. Almost all affected workers — 95 percent — would be age 20 or older. Economists have studied the impact of minimum wage increases for decades. And the vast weight of the research finds that they raise workers’ take home pay without leading to notable job cuts.
Now is not a time to be distracted. There are many things our city can do to help low-wage workers and their households, including improving educational resources for their kids, providing good job training in growing sectors of our economy, and making housing affordable.
But having a city of workers who earn above the poverty level can make all these investments pay off even more.
The writers are, respectively, the executive director and communications director and workforce policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.