Guest Opinion: Minimum Wage Hike Good Idea
By Lisa Pett, Special to the City-Times
The federal minimum wage was established in 1938 with passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act along with rules dictating a limit of 44 hours in the workweek and banning child labor. The minimum wage was twenty-five cents an hour.
It takes an act of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage but states, counties, and municipalities have enacted laws increasing their minimum wages, with some tying the wage to increases in the CPI (consumer price index) or to keep pace with inflation.
The Portage County Board of Supervisors has placed a minimum wage increase referendum on the November ballot. The referendum question will be whether to raise the minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. This is NOT a decision to enact a law increasing the minimum wage but merely a nonbinding resolution that may or may not influence future legislation.
Proponents of an increase argue that the increase will help low-wage earners, by raising their income and lowering their dependence on federal housing, healthcare, and food assistance programs.
Opponents warn of a crushing loss of jobs and oppressive price increases for goods as companies pass the price of this increase onto consumers. Most of these jobs are for teenagers, they say, and are not meant to support an individual, much less a family.
Like most economic problems, the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes. There is no question that the value of the minimum wage has decreased, down by 27% since its high in 1968. A single adult working 40 hours a week at the federal minimum of $7.25 falls under federal poverty guidelines and would qualify for both Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly, Food Stamps).
The face of minimum wage workers is changing. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 88% of them are over 20 years old. The average age is 35 and over half of them work full time. The majority of them (55%) are women and 78% of them are high school graduates. 50% of them account for half of their family’s income and 19% of them are their family’s sole provider. Most minimum wage jobs provide no benefits, paid sick days, health insurance, or retirement.
Wages are at an all time low as part of the GDP (gross domestic product) while corporate profits are at an all time high. Fully half of minimum wage workers receive some sort of government assistance, meaning taxpayers are subsidizing for-profit companies and helping keep wages low.
In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Representative Paul Ryan extolled the “dignity of work” as an important part of combating poverty, not quite realizing that the majority of people in poverty are already working–they’re just not paid very much. There is no nobility in poverty. And I can’t think of anything less dignified than putting in 40 hours a week and still qualifying for food stamps.
Most economists agree that there will be some job loss from an increased minimum wage, but the offset will be that low wage workers will see an increase in income, reducing their need for government assistance and that employers will benefit from decreased turnover and increased productivity.
As for whether these jobs are meant to support a person who works them, it’s time for Americans to truly assess the cost of unskilled labor. These workers are caring for the elderly in nursing homes and infants in daycare. They are cleaning offices and preparing and serving our food. Is it really worth paying seventy-five cents less for a hamburger if it means that the worker preparing it has to rely on food stamps to feed his or her own kids? This November Portage County residents will have to answer that question.
We cannot continue the cycle of subsidizing employers who have no incentive to raise wages as long as their employees are receiving government assistance. We have a chance to provide the real opportunity of a living wage for people who want to earn it.