RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE? FEDS: NO! VOTERS: YES!

The bad news is that Congress and the President have not raised the federal minimum wage since July 2009 when it was set to $7.25 (about $14,500 per year for a full-time worker). After adjusting for inflation, it is now worth only $6.19. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $11.39 in today’s dollars. If it isn’t raised by this July, which seems unlikely, it will have been 10 years that low-income workers governed by the federal minimum wage have gone without a raise; the longest period without an increase since it was first establish in 1938. [1]

Failing to raise the minimum wage as inflation increases prices shifts money from low-income workers’ pockets and the local economies where they spend their earnings to the pockets of their employers’ executives and shareholders. This is borne out by the fact that executive pay and corporate profits are at record levels. The minimum wage does not get increased because employers are greedy and politicians cater to wealthy campaign supporters rather than regular voters and workers. By the way, the best data available show that increasing the minimum wage does NOT reduce overall employment.

The good news is that some states and communities, often driven by grassroots activists, are increasing the minimum wage. On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in 20 states and 24 communities went up, increasing pay for over 5 million workers. Over the course of the year, workers will earn over $5 billion more as a result. In eight states, the minimum wage is linked to inflation and is automatically adjusted each year. Alaska is one; there the minimum wage will go up, but by just $0.05 per hour, the smallest of the increases. [2]

The minimum wage increases were set by legislative action in six states and by local governing bodies in the communities where the wage increased. In New York City, for example, the minimum wage went up by $2.00 per hour.

In six states, increases in the minimum wage were the result of ballot measures that voters approved. Increasingly, as the federal government and some state governments (Arkansas and Missouri for example) are refusing to increase the minimum wage, grassroots activists are taking matters into their own hands and putting increases on the ballot.

The bad news is that in Michigan and the District of Columbia (D.C.) legislators blocked, reduced, and/or delayed increases in the minimum wage that had been put forth by voters! In D.C., city councilors overturned a law approved by 55% of voters that would have increased the minimum wage of tipped workers so that over time it would be the same as the minimum wage for other workers. [3]

In Michigan, the Republican legislature and Governor went out of their way to deny the will of the voters. Over 300,000 citizens had signed a petition to put a minimum wage increase on the November ballot, where its approval seemed certain. The ballot measure would have increased the minimum wage from $9.25 to $10 on January 1, 2019, to $12 by 2022, and then had it increase automatically based on inflation.

In September, the Michigan legislature and Governor, in an effort to circumvent the proposed minimum wage increase, adopted the language of the ballot initiative. This meant it would not appear on the ballot, thereby denying voters the opportunity to approve it. Then, the legislature voted for (and the Governor signed) a delay in the minimum wage increases with the increase to $12 delayed from 2022 to 2030! They also eliminated the automatic increases based on inflation. This would likely mean that minimum wage workers would see their real wages (after adjusting for inflation) decline over this period.

The good news is that the Michigan law that allows the legislature and Governor to intercept a ballot measure and prevent it from appearing on the ballot by approving it, states that the approved measure cannot be amended in the same legislative session. However, this is exactly what they did. Therefore, a lawsuit to the state’s Supreme Court is likely and would appear to have a good chance of succeeding. [4]

Given the almost 10 years since the federal minimum wage was increased and the 40 years of other policies that have left workers’ wages stagnant, raising the minimum wage at the state or local level is perhaps the most effective way to lift the incomes of our lowest-paid workers. Unfortunately, 21 states still rely on the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The resistance of our elected officials to increasing the minimum wage reflects the extent to which many Republican and some Democratic elected representatives are more responsive to large employers and their wealthy executives and shareholders than to every day workers. The fact that every minimum wage increase that’s appeared on the ballot has been approved by voters shows the strength of support for a higher minimum wage among the voting public.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 12/27/18, “Here’s how much the federal minimum wage fell this year,” The Washington Post

[2]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, “Over 5 million workers will have higher pay on January 1 thanks to state minimum wage increases,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/12/28/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-january-1-thanks-state-minimum-wage) or Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-on-january-1-thanks-to-state-minimum-wage-increases/)

[3]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, see above

[4]      Anzilotti, E., 12/6/18, “Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade,” Fast Company (https://www.fastcompany.com/90277788/michigan-republicans-decide-that-people-can-live-on-925-an-hour-for-the-next-decade)

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