Give laborers a break: Hike the minimum wage
The Kansas City Star
Labor Day 2012 comes at a crucial moment for workers in Missouri. Perhaps as early as this week, a judge will decide whether citizens gathered enough valid signatures of registered voters to have a statewide vote on raising the minimum wage.
Our hope is that voters will have their say. Most state lawmakers are too beholden to business lobbyists to even consider budging Missouri’s pay from $7.25 an hour, which is also the federal floor. So a voter initiative presents the best chance for correcting an injustice and an inequity.
In Missouri and at the federal level, minimum-wage pay is worth less now than it was in the late 1960s. If it had kept pace with inflation since then, it would have topped $10 an hour.
A worker on minimum wage earns just more than $15,080 a year, far below the federal poverty threshold of $19,090 for a family of three. It’s true that the low-wage workforce includes teenagers and people who live in households with other income earners. But a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute found that fewer than one-third of low-wage earners live in households with incomes over $50,000.
A substandard minimum wage is wrong in many ways. It worsens the income equality gap, which leaves multitudes of Americans falling behind. It weighs disproportionately on women, who make up 60 percent of the minimum-wage workforce. It depresses the economy by denying workers a fair share of the profits which they help to create.
Missouri Jobs With Justice, a group leading the voter initiative to raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour, has used data from the Economic Policy Institute to calculate that the dollar-an-hour increase would affect nearly a quarter-million Missouri workers.
If the experience of other places bears out, workers with salaries close to the minimum would get raises also, as employers seek to keep pay scales intact.
Business groups and their allies in the Missouri legislature are protesting an increased wage, contending it would force employers to lay off staff and result in higher prices. Teenagers in particular would lose out, they contend.
The last thing anyone wants to see is higher unemployment and even worse job opportunities for young people. But a spate of new studies shows that isn’t destined, or even likely, to happen.
Researchers have been looking closely at states and cities that have boosted minimum wage, and compared them to their lower-pay neighbors. Areas with higher pay don’t lose jobs, the studies have found. In fact, the extra pay proves good for a region’s economy, as cash-strapped workers generally spend it almost immediately.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney expressed support earlier this year for allowing the minimum wage to rise at the rate of inflation, but backed off after an outcry from business groups.
There are also proposals in Congress to raise hourly earnings for the lowest-paid workers, including a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, to raise the federal rate to $9.80 an hour over a three-year period.
But given the gridlock in Washington, action at the state level appears to be the best chance for achieving both justice and common sense.