7-24-08, 9:25 am
The federal minimum wage is due to increase today, July 24, to $6.55 per hour. Passage of the increase was one of the first accomplishments of the new Democratic-controlled Congress, and the wage is scheduled to rise again next summer to $7.25.
Democrats in Congress were finally able to pass a rise in the minimum wage that had been blocked by Republicans or vetoed by George W. Bush over the past 12 years.
While the increase will amount to close to $100 more per week for the several million workers making the minimum wage when it reaches $7.25, this amount is clearly not enough to support the basic needs of an individual adult let alone any family. According to Department of Labor statistics, about 75 percent of minimum wage earners are over 20 and hundreds of thousands are heads of households.
The value of the minimum wage has shrunk dramatically since 1968. In today's dollars, workers making the minimum wage 40 years ago would have earned $9.68 per hour, more than $3 per hour or $120 per week more than what minimum wage earners will make after July 24.
In a blog post at Working Life, union activist Jonathan Tasini wrote, 'If you do the math, it's pretty stark. If you worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, you would earn $13,624. Not a single day off. No sick days. No health care. No pension.'
'The official federal poverty rate for a family of three is $17,600. Meaning, at the new rate, under the official definition, you are still poor if you are a household of just three--not to mention if you have a bigger family – and you are willing to work every hour, every weekday, every single week – with no break.Data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute reveals that 23 states already mandate a higher minimum wage than does the federal government.
This fact has prompted a number of pro-worker groups to call for a much higher minimum wage.
The Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, for example, this week launched a national campaign 'to end poverty wages' and the call for a federal minimum wage of $10 by 2010.
A living wage is necessary to lift workers out of poverty, the campaign's press statement said. Let Justice Roll is an alliance of faith, community, and labor organizations.
“We must break the cycle of too little, too late raises,” said Rev. Steve Copley, chair of Let Justice Roll, in a press statement. “Men and women working full time should not have to choose between paying the rent and paying for healthcare, putting gas in their car or oil in their furnace. A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”
The campaign will reach out to faith leaders across the country urging them to endorse the $10 in 2010 proposal. They will be asked to sign a letter to Congress to be delivered next January as the new Congress is sworn in. In addition, the campaign is planning “Living Wage Days” services and community events across the country January 10 and 11.
“All of the faith traditions represented in our broad coalition agree that employers need to pay fair wages,” said Rev. Ron Stief, vice chair of Let Justice Roll. “Since 2005, we have played a leading role in raising the minimum wage in 17 states and breaking the long-term stalemate in raising the federal minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to $10 in 2010 is the crucial next step.”
The rationale for the campaign is that a low wage is designed to keep workers in poverty and desperation rather than lift them out of it. A $10 minimum wage is a step toward keeping pace with the general rise in real wages over the last 40 years. It will also allow workers to afford basic necessities established by law as “minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being of workers.'
Indeed, if one articulates support for family values, it is a living wage that would allow families to afford basic necessities that keep children healthy and families strong, suggests a press statement by the campaign.
“The minimum wage sets the wage floor, and we cannot build a strong economy on downwardly mobile wages and rising debt and insecurity,” said Holly Sklar, senior policy adviser for Let Justice Roll and co-author of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future.
Contrasting the values of working families with Wall Street speculators, Sklar added, “Minimum wage workers don’t put their raises into predatory lending, commodity speculation or offshore tax havens. They recycle their needed raises back into local business and the economy.”
Federal government data reveals that the fastest growing occupations over the next few years will be in jobs that are most likely to pay the minimum wage. “Paying workers enough to live on cannot not be optional,” said Sklar.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney praised the work of the Democrats to pass a raise in the minimum wage, but also indicated that the economic crisis has minimized its impact.
'But while the 70 cent increase is a modest step in the right direction, it’s far from enough to temper today’s volatile economy. Rising inflation – especially in gas prices – continues to eat away at the value of the minimum wage and of all wages,' he said.
While Republican presidential nominee John McCain has firmly opposed minimum wage increases over the past 12 years, Barack Obama helped pass the current wage increase and has called for indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
--Reach Joel Wendland at