In the richest country on earth, if you work 40 hours a week you shouldn’t have to live in poverty
Congress can no longer ignore the needs of the working class of this country. At a time of massive and growing income and wealth inequality and record-breaking corporate profits, we must stand up for working families – many of whom are struggling every day to provide a minimal standard of living for their families.
One important way to do that is to raise the federal minimum wage to a living wage. In the year 2023, nobody in the US should be forced to work for starvation wages. It should be a basic truism that in the US, the richest country on earth, if you work 40 hours a week you do not live in poverty. Raising the minimum wage is not only the right thing to do morally. It is also good economics. Putting money into the hands of people who will spend it on basic needs is a strong economic stimulant.
When over 60% of American workers are now living paycheck to paycheck, when the life expectancy of low-income Americans is in decline, when we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country, we can no longer tolerate a federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, a wage that has not been raised since 2009. Incredibly, the federal minimum wage has lost over 27% of its purchasing power since it was last raised 14 years ago. That is unacceptable. Millions of Americans cannot be allowed to fall further and further behind economically, unable to afford the housing, food, healthcare, childcare and education they desperately need in order to live in health and dignity.
Whether they are greeting us at Walmart, serving us hamburgers at McDonald’s, providing childcare for our kids or waiting on our table at a diner in rural America, there are too many Americans trying to survive and raise families on $9, $10 or $12 an hour. It cannot be done. This injustice must end. Low-income workers need a pay raise and the American people want them to get that raise.
Poll after poll shows overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage to a living wage. But it’s not just polls. In 2021, the Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives voted to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bad news is that we lacked the votes to pass this legislation through the equally divided Senate. Not only did a $15-an-hour minimum wage bill fail to win the vote of a single Republican in the Senate, eight Democrats voted against it as well.
That was then. Now is now. And things are changing. As a result of years of congressional inaction, cities and states all across the country are taking the low-wage crisis into their own hands and raising their minimum wage. Some are doing it through legislative action. Others are doing it through ballot initiatives.
Since 2013, the people of 12 states – New Jersey, South Dakota, Arkansas (twice), Alaska, Washington, Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, Nevada and Nebraska (twice) – have voted on ballot initiatives to raise their state’s minimum wage. Every single one of these initiatives passed, none with less than 55% of the vote. And these are not just strong “blue states” voting for economic justice. In the recent November 2022 midterm election, two states that voted in Republican governors, Nebraska and Nevada, voted to raise the minimum wage. In 2020, the citizens of Florida, with a Republican governor and two Republican senators, also voted to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The MIT living wage calculator estimates a living wage as a salary that is adequate enough to support a family without luxuries. For two working adults and one child, a living hourly wage for each adult would be $18.69 in West Virginia, $17.55 in South Carolina, $21.57 in Maryland, $20.01 in Utah and $19.33 in Wisconsin. Even in my own state of Vermont, the living wage is $19.58, more than $6 above the current state minimum wage.
But there are many families that do not have two working adults and rely on single moms who are raising their children on their own. In that case, the required living wage is much higher. As an example, a single mother in West Virginia would need to make $33.39 an hour to support herself and one child.
So it is not radical to suggest that raising the minimum wage to $17 an hour over a period of several years is the right thing to do. In fact, had my 2015 bill to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour that was indexed to median wages became law, the federal minimum wage this January would be at least $17.40 an hour. And while we deal with the minimum wage, we must also address the scandal of the tipped wage, which has been stuck at an abysmally low $2.13 an hour for more than 30 years thanks, in large part, to the powerful restaurant lobby which has spent millions in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses since 1991 to keep workers in poverty.
Together, these two proposals would provide an increase in pay for tens of millions of desperate Americans – disproportionately women and people of color. It would also be a huge boost to single moms. Let us not forget that these are the essential workers who kept the economy going during the worst of the Covid pandemic. At that time we called them heroes and heroines. Well, rhetorical praise is nice. A livable paycheck is better. Let’s do it.