Tiffany Williams of the Institute for Policy Studies has a great idea for helping our lowest-paid workers, while at the same
time boosting the entire economy.
It's simple, and it's doable: Raise the federal minimum wage. President Obama is all for it. Or at least he said he was
when he was campaigning for election. He declared simply that people working full time should not live in poverty, which many
of the millions living on the current minimum wage were doing - and are now doing at the current rate of $7.25 an hour.
Obama proposed raising the minimum to $9.50 an hour by 2011. That, mind you, would merely adjust the minimum wage for
inflation, doing nothing more than restoring its 1968 purchasing power.
Williams acknowledges that it's risky to boost wages during a recession - but she says "several economic studies
indicate otherwise . . . Increasing the minimum wage, and thereby increasing purchasing power for the poorest Americans,
actually helps the economy recover."
Obama's election year proposal on raising the minimum was, to put it mildly, a very modest proposal. But despite that,
Williams, says, "neither the White House nor Congress has done anything to make it happen. " Instead, at least three
Republican candidates in the midterm elections actually called for the minimum wage to be abolished.
That's right, the GOP office seekers advocated doing away with one of the most basic and necessary protections workers
have had since the New Deal days of the 1930s, when the minimum was set at 38 cents an hour.
It's clear that the current minimum is falling far short of doing what the law says it should be doing. That is, it should
be providing a "minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency and general well-being." You could
hardly do that at the current rate., which would earn you just a hair over $15,000 a year if you worked full-time with no
time off - and that's before taxes and other deductions.
Williams asks us to consider, for example, a working single mom with two children. The federal poverty level for such
a family is just a bit over $18,000 a year. Thus the single mom could work full time at the current minimum and still earn
$3,000 less than poverty wages.
Raising the minimum would not only help single moms and others trapped in poverty, but it would also boost the sagging
economy generally. It's estimated that every dollar increase in wages for workers at the minimum wage level creates more
than $3,000 in new spending after a single year.
As Williams notes, raising the minimum wage would be only a small step needed to help low-income families. But, as she
says, "It's nevertheless an important step for ensuring that workers in minimum and near-minimum wage jobs can better
bridge the gap between their meager income and expenses."
So, here's the deal: First, raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation, so that it rises whenever inflation rises,
and at the same rate. Then have the federal government insure that all workers do indeed get the full protection of the law.
Williams notes that last year about 3.5 million workers earned the minimum or less. Those earning less were some of our
most exploited yet valuable workers - about one million farm workers, domestics, home health care workers and other categories
of workers who are not even covered by the minimum wage law.
The minimum wage is just as important now as it was when it was established during the Great Depression. And it's just
as important that the rate be set at a level necessary to keep workers from poverty.
Yet there are lawmakers and others - mostly Republicans, of course - who actually argue that the economy would best be
boosted, not by helping poverty-stricken workers, but by cutting the taxes of the wealthy and, as Williams notes, "slashing
budgets for social services that will leave millions of Americans behind."
Listen up White House and Congress. Listen to Tiffany Williams. She says "raising the minimum wage would be a step
toward restoring dignity for millions of workers, enabling many ordinary working Americans to become part of the economic
recovery rather than its collateral damage."
She's right, of course.
Copyright © 2010 Dick Meister