When a group of workers seeking a raise in the state’s minimum wage marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in the fall of 2012, they carried a banner proclaiming “Fight for 15.” Back then, it was an all but unknown cause, and doubters quickly surfaced. “This is a losing battle for these workers because even if they win, they lose,” one trade association executive told the Chicago Tribune, claiming that increasing hourly pay to $15 an hour would be accompanied by increased unemployment.
Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a survey this week proclaiming that if the federal minimum wage doubled to $15 an hour by 2025, it would lift an estimated 900,000 people out of poverty. Unfortunately, their study found that financial gain would come at a cost of an estimated 1.4 million jobs, something that could make it harder on people attempting to gain or keep a foothold in the workplace. It would also increase the federal budget deficit.
Opponents once again pounced. “Let’s not forget we are recovering from a recession that disproportionately hurt businesses with hourly workers,” the National Review opined.
Please. There is a bigger truth here, one that we frequently lose sight of in the ongoing argument over a fair day’s pay for a day’s work. It is this: The minimum wage, by its very existence, makes the argument that there needs to be a floor for wages offered to workers. People who work full time do not deserve to live in penury. No one should need to work nine to five and five to nine to just get by in the United States.
From the very beginning of the labor rights movements in the 19th century, as journalist Sarah Jaffe points out in her new book Work Won’t Love You Back, activists didn’t simply want a higher wage — they emphasized the freedom from work, too. They wanted to earn enough money from their employment that they didn’t need to work 12 hours every day or work two jobs or three gigs.
The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, a record-breaking amount of time. This is despite the fact that a full-time worker earning that sum would earn less than $16,000 annually and find it all but impossible to live a life above the poverty line. Contrary to the perception that the minimum wage is simply a stepping stone for young and inexperienced workers, more than half of workers receiving minimum wage are over the age of 25 and 1 in 4 are parents.
We say work provides dignity and security, but we often treat workers with contempt. As a result of the low minimum wage, all too many employees we’ve deemed “essential” in the past year and claim to honor and appreciate live in financially precarious positions.
Our nation’s subpar minimum wage also amounts to a back-door government subsidy to some of the nation’s largest employers, many of whom can certainly afford to pay their workers more than they currently do. They simply choose not to do so, even while overpaying celebrity CEOs and other C-suite workers.
But we all pay the bill for corporate America’s misplaced priorities and greed. A survey released by the Government Accountability Office last year studied employment records from 11 states and found that more than half of recipients of such government benefits as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program worked full-time, many for large corporations or nonprofits like university systems. We’re actually providing what Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calls “corporate welfare.”
Joe Biden campaigned for president on a $15-an-hour minimum wage pledge. It is, at least for now, a part of the latest economic stimulus. The House Committee on Education and Labor signed off on it Tuesday, with all the Democrats voting in favor of increasing it to that number by 2025, while Republicans gave it a thumbs down. It’s not clear the effort will make it into the final bill — rules governing what can and can’t be passed via reconciliation efforts might stop it and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is known to oppose it — but this should not be the end of the matter.
A $15-an-hour minimum wage is not a radical ask. Americans are strongly in favor of it. Even Florida voters — a state with a Republican governor, two Republican senators and Republican control of the state legislature — approved a ballot initiative in November raising the state’s minimum wage floor to $15 an hour by 2026. A majority of us understand something that millionaire Republican members of Congress and the chattering business class on CNBC does not: We’re all winners when the lowest-earning workers earn a living wage.