Raising the Minimum Wage: Don't Stop Now!

OK, after ten years - ten years! -- we finally have a new federal minimum wage. But guess what? It's not enough, not nearly enough.

If you think it is, picture yourself trying to live on $5.85 an hour, the new rate that went into effect July 1. Or how about $6.55, next year's rate. Or even $7.25, the minimum that Congress generously set for 2009.

Say you work full-time at the minimum, eight hours a day, five days a week. For the rest of this year you'll be making $46.80 a day, $234 a week. When the top rate kicks in two years from now, you'll be getting a grand total of $58 for a day's work, $290 for a week, just a little more than $15,000 for the year's work. And that's minus taxes and other payroll deductions.

Can that really be all that the wealthiest country in the world can afford? Does that meet the legal requirement, spelled out in the Fair Labor Standards Act, that the minimum be set high enough to guarantee "a standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being"?

A poverty-level existence, or something very near to it, is what it actually guarantees the 20 million Americans who are paid at or near the minimum.

Which is why leaders of the labor movement and the Democratic Party already are urging that the rate be raised again as soon as possible. That would be in 2010. That's much too long to wait, and the suggested rate of $9.50 an hour is at least a dollar or two short of what it should be. But politically, that's the best we can expect.

It is certain, in any case, that Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts will soon introduce a bill to put a $9.50 minimum into effect a year after the $7.25 rate becomes law. The bill may also include a provision that would automatically raise the minimum to match increases in the rate of inflation or in some other measure of the cost of living.

The pay of Congress members is adjusted that way, after all. That got them raises amounting to more than $31,000 during the decade in which they refused to raise the minimum pay of the working poor. So their minimum wage is now $168,500 a year, counting this year's raise of $3,300. All that plus free health care, pensions and other expensive benefits that are not available to the minimum wage earners among their constituents.

Sen. Kennedy, key sponsor of the bill that raised the minimum this year and of previous bills that Congress' former Republican majority blocked, will have plenty of Democratic co-sponsors. He'll also have the support of at least one of the Democrats' presidential candidates, former Sen. John Edwards, for what Kennedy thinks will be a major issue in the 2008 election.

Edwards wants a provision that would automatically raise the minimum yearly to match any increase in the average pay of U.S. workers generally, which is projected to rise to more than twice the minimum by 2009.

So who are these minimum wage workers whose plight should absolutely be a major issue?

No, they're not middle-class teenagers flipping hamburgers for extra spending money or other second earners in fairly well-off families who are cited frequently by opponents of minimum wage increases who should know better - and probably do.

Actually, more than one-third of those paid the minimum are the main or sole support of their families. Almost two-thirds are women, including some 750,000 single mothers. More than one-third are African-American, Latino or Asian. Many are recently arrived immigrants.

Most work in the service or retail fields or in agriculture, many doing such vital work as caring for elderly nursing home patients or the children of working mothers, and many doing some of society's dirtiest and most thankless tasks. Many can't find full-time jobs of any kind, even at the bare minimum. Only a few belong to unions or have other protection aside from the law.

But what of that other bit of fiction spread by opponents, their flimsy argument that raising the minimum forces employers to eliminate jobs? Don't you believe it.

Just the opposite has happened after each of the 19 previous times the minimum has been raised since it was initially set at 25 cents an hour in 1938. The job growth has been spurred primarily by the increased spending of those whose pay has been increased.

What's more, the raises have benefited employers, since increasing workers' pay raises their morale and, with it, their productivity, while decreasing absenteeism and recruiting and training costs.

Taxpayers would benefit, too, since so much of the billions paid out in public assistance goes to families whose working members do not earn enough at the current minimum wage to be self-supporting.

Pardon the cliché, but raising the minimum to at least $9.50 is strictly a no-brainer.

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