March 20, 2013 —
In Albany, the New York State (NYS) Assembly has approved a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour, the same figure President Obama recommended in his January State of the Union address when he talked about the need to help America’s working poor. In his own budget address, Governor Cuomo also called for an increase to $8.75 in New York. Now, in the GOP-controlled NYS Senate, a coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats reportedly is discussing the possibility of gradually raising the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to an unspecified amount over the next several years.
We at The River Reporter believe it’s time for a raise for America’s lowest paid workers.
To put things in perspective, a wage of $7.25 an hour amounts to $15,080 a year. Nine dollars an hour would be $18,720 a year, and even this is not a “living wage” as many people define it, setting the bar at the federal poverty level for a family of four. In 2013, federal guidelines set the poverty level at $23,550.
Here are some more figures to digest:
The total number of Americans in low-income working families now stands at 47.5 million. Nationwide, nearly one third (32%) of all working families do not earn enough to meet basic needs. More than a third of children in families with a working adult live in low-income circumstances. Right here in our state, more than 55% of workers in New York who receive minimum wage are women, many of them with children. Further, the percentage of low-income working families in New York is 28%.
The main argument against raising the minimum wage comes from business, which seeks to maximize profits, including by keeping workers’ wages low. Business argues that such a mandated raise destroys jobs and increases unemployment particularly among young and unskilled workers by pricing them out of the market, and that in response employers cut budgets, lay off workers or decide not to hire. In the long run, business argues that higher wages hurt not only profit margins but the wider economy as well, as increased labor costs are passed on to consumers.
On the other hand, there are real reasons to raise the minimum wage. One is that minimum wage workers have been falling behind for a long time; if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would now be $10 an hour. Another argument in favor is that we all foot the bill—for programs like Medicaid, housing assistance and food stamps—when workers earn too little to get themselves out of poverty. Because the federal minimum wage establishes a floor for all wages, even a modest raise would help lift the incomes of other low-paid workers. (In the U.S., one out of every four wage earners works for less than $10 an hour.) Consider, too, that higher wages lift consumer spending power, which ripples through the wider economy. Finally, there is the argument that these workers—cashiers and clerks, nursing assistants and lab technicians, truck drivers and waiters who provide needed services and a social good—deserve the dignity of a decent wage that will provide a minimum standard of living.
We find the reasons to increase the minimum wage both persuasive and fair. In the face of constantly rising prices for food, energy and other everyday goods, the time has come to raise the minimum wage to help the working poor so they do not continue to lose ground. The current minimum wage is a poverty wage, and in the richest economy in the world, condemning workers to poverty wages should not be acceptable. A modest raise—a mere $1.75 an hour—does not pose an unacceptable risk to the wider economy; after all, we are not talking about in increase to $15 or $20 an hour.
Finally, however, a raise to $9 an hour is only the first step that should be taken. The next step should be to start a real conversation about institutionalizing the idea of a “living wage”—whether tying it to the inflation rate, the Consumer Price Index, to federal poverty guidelines, or some other benchmark—the time has come to do what is just and right for hard-working wage earners in a free, open and prosperous society.