It's time for Congress to step up to the plate. Municipalities and states across the country have moved to boost local minimum wages, recognizing that, in the eight years since the federal government last increased the federal minimum, the then-already-paltry $5.15 an hour has eroded even further.
The New Jersey Legislature agreed to phase in a $2 wage hike over two years, while voters in supposedly red states like Florida and Nevada overwhelmingly backed increases in their states' minimums -- proving that the issue is one that cuts across political lines.
But, as the New York Times wrote in an early January editorial, these piecemeal efforts are not enough -- "The nation would be better off with a uniform federal standard."
That's why the AFL-CIO and a number of other organizations are pushing for an increase in the wage to $7.25 an hour -- a $2.10 increase that would elevate minimum-wage purchasing power to the level it had in the mid-1970s. And according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank based in Washington, over the last 50 years, the wage has been lower in constant dollars only once -- in 1956, shortly before a wage hike.
Some basic arithmetic is in order:
A full-time worker earning the $5.15 minimum would gross $10,712 a year. [The federal poverty line is $16,090 for a family of three.]
An extra $2.10 per hour would mean another $4,368 a year -- just enough to push a minimum-wage worker over the poverty line, but not nearly enough to allow most workers to be self-sufficient. To do that most workers would need to earn better than $15 an hour, and more than $20 in some urban areas.
Nonetheless, a $2.10 wage increase would directly help 7.3 million workers, according to the EPI, workers who now make less than $7.25. According to EPI, another $8.2 million would benefit from "spillover effects," or increases in their own paychecks spurred on by such a hike, the EPI says.
And the beneficiaries of a boost in the minimum would be adults (72%) -- particularly women and minorities who make up a disproportionate share of those workers making between $5.15 and $7.25 an hour.
The Republican-controlled Congress, however, views the minimum wage through a lens prescribed by a business community more concerned with keeping wages low than with aiding workers.
"Business interests, led by the restaurant industry, have lobbied to keep the minimum wage low," the Times writes. "Some free-market conservatives, heirs to the original opponents of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which created the federal minimum), oppose it on ideological grounds. In recent years, these forces have prevailed. The same Congress that has passed huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations has consistently refused to help those on the other side of the economic divide."
That the arguments against a wage hike fail to hold water -- study after study debunks the canard that minimum-wage hikes cost jobs -- seems unimportant. The minimum wage remains off the table even as we move into a mid-term election year.
So we are left with the various state movements.
"In 2004, supporters of a higher minimum wage had impressive success in statewide votes. In Florida and Nevada -- both states that went for President Bush -- voters passed referendums to increase their states' minimum wage laws by margins of roughly 70 to 30 percent," the Times writes. "This year, there may be ballot initiatives in seven states, including Ohio and Michigan (and Nevada will vote again)."
And while "State minimum-wage referendums are not ideal," the Times writes, they "are the only game in town."
"Those grassroots debates may shame Congress into taking long-overdue action to help the lowest-paid workers."
That, of course, is how grassroots politics is supposed to work.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor living in central New Jersey. His email is email@example.com.