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It’s time to increase the minimum wage

They’re perhaps the most forgotten group in American society.  But almost nobody mentions them. Politicians fight over who is the biggest advocate for the middle class. Entire elections are fought on this theme.

As for the wealthy, with their lawyers, overseas investments, and special tax rates, they take care of themselves. But, there is one group that has almost no voice  - and that’s the working poor. These are people who ask almost nothing out of government, work at low paying jobs, often more than one, and just barely get by. They work at hard jobs too. This includes construction, cleaning, agricultural work, health care, and at all levels of the food service industry. They’re usually paid by the hour and most get by without health care.

These people don’t have time to lobby Congress, to complain, or to articulate their needs the way so many pressure groups do. They just work. However, their world, as you might expect is a precarious one. A car repair, a medical bill, or even an increase in the rent, can send them over the edge. When they do, they go from just getting by to being homeless and destitute. What can I say?  It’s a tough way to live.

The working poor, while not getting much from government, nonetheless benefit from one important law and that’s the requirement that employers pay a national minimum wage. The U.S. has had a minimum wage law since the 1930’s, but in recent years, any proposal to increase the minimum wage develops into a bitter and often partisan fight.

The current minimum wage is $7.50 an hour. That’s $300 a week if the person is working full time. No one is going to get rich off of this, and in our region, it’s virtually impossible, particularly if there are dependents, to live at this income level.  

That’s why many working poor have more than one job. Don’t ever say they’re lazy. But, even then, it’s just not enough to get by on. Recently, however, President Obama, in his State of the Union message, proposed raising the minimum wage in a series of increments from its current level at $7.50 to $9.00. Again, no one is going to get rich off that increase, but it might, for some families at least push the wolf back from the door. They would still be vulnerable, but that slight edge, at least for some, could make all the difference.

Predictably, there are some, particularly in the House GOP Caucus, who oppose any increase in the minimum wage. For that matter, many don’t even like the minimum wage law to begin with. They want all wages to be set by the market, and if people are being paid at a level below a basic subsistence level, that’s their problem. What’s more, they claim, by paying a higher minimum wage this reduces the amount of money that could be used to hire additional workers. However, that argument of classical economics has never held up.

The minimum wage has been raised several times in the last forty years and analyses of its impact on available minimum wage jobs has consistently shown that it has no impact all. When an increase in the minimum wage is handled in increments, as it was the last time it was raised, the economy has plenty of time to adjust.

Many of the most vehement opponents are Republicans, but before this debate is once again defined in terms of parties, it might be worth looking back to 2007. That was the last time the minimum wage was increased. President Obama is asking for a 25% increase. However, in 2007, the minimum wage bill required a 41% incremental increase and the President who signed it was George W. Bush. President Bush, in his comments about the bill, framed his agreement with the legislation in terms of fairness.

Congress has developed a tendency to cast every issue in harshly partisan terms. This makes life easier. You don’t have to think about issues, you just find out which side proposed it and make up your mind accordingly. However, in this case, party politics should have little to do with it.

The beneficiaries of an increase in the minimum wage are arguably the most admirable workers in America. They aren’t on welfare, and they don’t ask for much. They just work. Surely, passing an increase in the minimum wage isn’t too much to ask.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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