When running for president in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama said, "I won't be raising the minimum wage every 10 years. We're going to raise the minimum wage every single year." But two years later, Sen. Obama was President Obama, and despite Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the minimum-wage laws remained unchanged.
The president finally moved from talk to action in his State of the Union address this year when he announced that he will use his executive authority to raise the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts to $10.10 an hour. The decision came after a series of high-profile strikes and demonstrations by employees of federal contractors earning poverty wages, which exposed the administration's role as a low-road employer. But the executive order—limited in scope—shouldn't let Congress off the hook for doing right by all workers in this country.
During his speech, the president also urged his colleagues to adopt the proposal of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., which calls for updating the federal minimum-wage law by raising the wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. Additionally, their bills would increase the tipped minimum wage from a paltry $2.13 to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage—and, equally important, would give the law teeth by indexing the wage hike to inflation.
Some politicians have been calling for an increase to the federal minimum wage for all workers since 2009, when the last hike was fully phased in. Lawmakers from all over the political spectrum are joining the choir on this issue. "Raising the minimum wage can lift all boats," said Sen. Robert Casey, the centrist Democrat from Pennsylvania. Republican National Committee member Henry Barbour of Mississippi has suggested that his party should be open to a minimum-wage increase, if only to show the GOP is "sensitized to the worker in America and their needs." Even Ron Unz, the conservative Republican who ran for governor of California, has called for increasing the minimum wage in that state.
These are all rhetorical steps in the right direction. But the question remains: When are we going to actually pass a law? And not just another incremental, symbolic increase, but one that provides a real, inflation-adjusted livable wage for millions of hardworking people who don't have enough money in their pockets to take care of basic necessities? Obama's executive order is a good start, but it's simply not enough, because it leaves too many other low-wage workers in the dark.
For those of us who care about working people and our economy, raising the federal minimum wage is a no-brainer. It is widely understood to be one of the most effective ways to bring millions of men and women out of the shadows of poverty and into the light of economic opportunity.
On the other hand, inaction means we will all continue to pay the high price of low wages. In the fast-food industry alone, 52 percent of workers rely on aid from taxpayer-funded public programs like food stamps because their wages are too low to make ends meet. According to the Berkeley Labor Center, "The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year." That's billions of dollars annually coming out of taxpayers' pockets to subsidize large, hugely profitable corporations that simply don't want to pay their workers a decent wage.
That's why we need the law to catch up and require corporations to do the right thing when it comes to paying workers a reasonable wage. The current minimum wage—which was signed into law by President George W. Bush—was set in 2007. So while wages have stayed the same, rent is higher, gas is more expensive, and the price of everything from daycare to a gallon of milk has increased as well.
Enough is enough. The vicious cycle of Republican opposition to a wage increase and the empty promises of reform from Democrats don't answer the call from workers—including the majority of voters. Many, many Americans want to see the minimum wage increased to help hardworking families put food on the table and keep the lights on. If lawmakers weasel out of raising the minimum wage, or indexing a wage hike, we're back at square one, dooming ourselves to more and more talking while doing nothing to help millions of American workers.
The Next America welcomes op-ed pieces that explore the political, economic, and social effects of the profound racial and cultural changes facing our nation. Email us. Also, please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.