As Bryce Covert of the news site ThinkProgress recently reported, workers in more than 340 cities will go on strike again on Tuesday, while “fast food employees, airport workers, childcare and home care providers, and university graduate students” will engage in “civil disobedience at McDonald’s and 20 of the nation’s largest airports.” The workers have also upped the ante: In addition to their calls for minimum wage increases, they’re “demanding no deportations of undocumented immigrants, an end to police violence against black people, and the protection of health care coverage.”
Winning all of these important fights is unlikely, especially in an era of Republican governance, but this type of grass-roots activism is exactly what’s needed. Coupled with the widespread popularity of increasing the minimum wage, these protests could help lead to an increase in the federal wage floor sometime during the next four years.
Such an increase would be long overdue. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since July 2009 and, after accounting for inflation, is 24 percent below its maximum annual value from 1968. It was 55 percent of the median wage that year, according to OECD data; in 2015, that ratio had fallen to 36 percent, significantly below international norms.
Yes, many workers today are covered by minimum wages higher than the federal level; in large part thanks to the efforts of the Fight for $15, 29 states and D.C. have set their wage floors above $7.25 an hour, while 30 localities have minimum wages exceeding those in the rest of their respective states. But almost 40 percent of the workforce, much of it in the Deep South, remains bound to the federal standard.
The cost of living is lower in many of these states than in coastal cities such as Seattle and San Francisco, where minimum wages are in the process of phasing up to $15, but as workers in the Fight for $15 often note, $7.25 doesn’t come close to cutting it anywhere in America. A living wage for a single adult is $9.63 an hour in 2016 dollars in the lowest-cost-of-living state in the country (Arkansas), according to calculations based on MIT’s living wage calculator. The living wage threshold is much higher for those who live with others; for a two-adult, two-child household in Arkansas in which both parents work, it rises to $13.71 an hour. MIT’s calculator also indicates that a single mom with one kid would need to earn about $20 an hour to have a decent standard of living in the nation’s lowest-wage state.
Though the minimum wage doesn’t have to do all the heavy lifting here — income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and SNAP (food stamps) are valuable complements to it — a more adequate wage floor would make a big difference for millions of workers and their families.
Donald Trump flip-flopped on this policy during his presidential campaign, but he ultimately seemed open to the idea of an increase. Trump’s $10 target is well below the current proposals from congressional Democrats, which have ranged from $12 to $15, yet it shows the growing Republican recognition that they’ve been on the wrong side of this issue for decades. Other Republican leaders, including Mitt Romney, Rob Portman and Rick Santorum, have also expressed an openness to boosting the wage floor for American workers.
While Republicans in Congress will try to extract concessions in return for agreeing to such a boost, there’s no reason for other lawmakers to acquiesce. Large majorities of Republicans’ constituents (as opposed to their campaign donors) support a minimum-wage increase.
Raising the wage floor would clearly be good policy, too. Decades of research show that minimum-wage increases more substantial than those Republicans are proposing have their intended effects of helping low-wage workers without much in the way of unintended job loss effects. While the labor market effects of the boldest Democratic proposals are harder to predict, as they lie outside the range of prior research, such proposals still phase in over several years to give businesses time to adjust and are worthy of Republicans’ consideration.
That they should do the right thing doesn’t mean these politicians will do it willingly, of course. Their feet will need to be held to the fire. But that’s precisely where the Fight for $15 has been so successful over the past four years, and low-wage workers’ resolve appears to be as strong as ever.
So help spread the word about Tuesday’s protests. Ready yourself with the facts about why workers are right to demand a raise. This Thanksgiving, they deserve our gratitude and support.