All Workers Should Share the Benefits of Growth, Raise the Federal Minimum Wage

01/21/2022 12:00am

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Duluth News Tribune
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Finger Lakes Times
Tribune-Democrat
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Waukesha Freeman
New Canaan Advertiser
Edwardsville Intelligencer
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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The federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25 an hour since 2009. This is by far the longest period that we have gone without an increase in the minimum wage since it was first established in 1938. In the over 12 years since the last increase, prices have risen by 29.0 percent, which means the minimum wage has lost a bit less than one-third of its value.

As a result of the federal government’s failure to raise its minimum wage, many states and cities have decided to increase the minimum wage for workers under their jurisdiction. Twenty-one states now have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. There also have been efforts to raise city minimum wages where states have declined to raise the wage floor statewide, although many states now prohibit this practice.

Some have argued that the increases in state and city minimum wages make an increase in the federal minimum wage unnecessary. This is not the case.

The idea of setting a national minimum wage is to create a national standard ensuring that every worker in the country has a decent standard of living. We impose national standards all the time, and they are often quite popular.

Just to take two obvious examples, Social Security and Medicare are both national programs. People get the same social security check (based on their earnings) regardless of where they lived, when they worked, or where they lived when they retired.

The same applies to Medicare. The health care facilities and doctors differ from state to state, but people contribute the same amount and are entitled to the same benefits regardless of where they live.
We also apply national standards for workplace safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t tell employers In Alabama or Wyoming that its okay to have an unsafe workplace. If a particular hazard would lead to a fine or closing in New York or California, it should lead to a fine or closing in any other state.

Probably the best example of national standards is civil rights. There were, and possibly are, several states that would rather not be bound by civil rights laws. Their political leadership was fine with discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. In fact, the politicians of the 1960s didn’t argue against civil rights legislation based on their desire to discriminate. Rather, they argued against it based on states’ rights.

It would be ironic if opposition to a federal minimum wage is to be grounded in claims of states’ rights. A disproportionate share of the workers who would benefit from a higher minimum wage are the same groups that are protected by civil rights laws.

It is understandable that employers who profit from paying workers very low wages will be opposed to a higher minimum wage. It is also possible that they can use their political power at the state level to prevent the minimum wage from being raised. This is the same story we saw 60 and 70 years ago as racist politicians prevented the passage of anti-discrimination laws at the state or local level.

At this point, there are no substantive arguments against raising minimum wages. The wage hikes in states and cities across the country give us ample evidence that modest increases in minimum wages do not lead to large-scale job loss.
They do substantially improve the living standards of workers and their families. A full-time, full-year worker getting the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would get less than $15,000 a year to support themselves and their family. If the minimum wage were $15 an hour, they would have more than twice as much income. This doubling would make a huge difference in living standards, especially for a family with children.

In the 1960s, Congress decided that it was unacceptable for states to practice discrimination against Black people and other minorities, even if that was what their political leaders wanted. It is time for Congress to say that employers in some states can’t exploit their workers, even when the state’s politicians want to preserve that option.

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