Marking the fifth anniversary since the last federal minimum-wage increase, progressives are set to begin a "Live the Wage Challenge" Thursday in a continued push for a wage boost.
A coalition of dozens of progressive advocacy and research groups, including Americans United for Change and the National Employment Law Project, are organizing and sponsoring the weeklong event, asking elected officials and members of the public to spend a week on a $77 budget — the average weekly figure for a minimum-wage worker after taxes and housing expenses.
The challenge comes amidst conflicting recent reports regarding the macroeconomic impact of a potential increase. Labor Department numbers released last week showed that the 13 states that raised their minimum wages at the beginning of this year are seeing faster job growth than those that did not. That news contradicted a Congressional Budget Office report from earlier this year, which found that a federal increase to $10.10 could result in 500,000 fewer jobs nationwide.
The minimum wage has been one of the most extensively researched economic topics for decades, but no irrefutable consensus has emerged about the effects on unemployment.
Living on a $77 budget for one week hardly simulates the everyday struggles of actual minimum-wage workers, whose deepest concerns are focused more on the long-term difficulties of climbing out of relative poverty. Nevertheless, organizers believe the short-lived exercise still offers a beneficial opportunity.
"Obviously we can't replicate that exact experience because people need to live their lives, and we're not asking anyone to default on their obligations or sacrifice their future for this exercise. In that sense, it has its limitations," said Arun Ivatury, the campaign strategist for NELP.
"On the other hand, frankly, I think most people who have more comfortable incomes don't really understand what $77 a week is like, and the only way to get a sense for it is to actually try it for a week, understand that it's an exercise and it's imperfect, but have that lend some awareness about what millions of people around the country go through every day," he said.
Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Tim Ryan, and Keith Ellison are leading the charge in the House, with additional help from Ted Strickland, the former governor of Ohio and current president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. And those public officials participating insist that experiences like these are valuable for relating to constituents.
"We need to try to experience, at least for a week, what life is really like. We can't do that totally, obviously — we'd have to change our entire lifestyles," Strickland said on a media conference call Monday. "But at least those of us who are engaged in this effort will be able to experience at some level what it must be like for people who live week after week and month after month working really hard and just struggling to keep their nose above the water line."
The ultimate long-term goal for the challenge's organizers is to pass legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10, and eventually to peg it to inflation so that the issue does not need regular congressional action moving forward. In March, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller introduced a bill to do just that. But despite a couple weeks of lofty rhetoric from Democrats, it faced the same impossible odds in a John Boehner-controlled House as attempts in previous sessions.
But organizers say there is more to this effort than just passing immediate legislation.
"It's easy to look at these things in one- or two- or three-month cycles," Ivatury said. "I don't think anyone in this coalition is pretending that we're going to pass a federal minimum-wage increase by September or October. That's not what we're looking at. We understand this is a long fight, and in a long fight you need to, as often as possible, draw attention to the issue you're trying to advance and the reality behind it."
Pegging the wage to inflation or some other index has received support from both sides of the aisle in the past, as Mitt Romney touted such a change on the 2012 campaign trail. The issue was thorny for the former Massachusetts governor during the Republican primaries, eventually convincing him to reverse course. But Romney and former primary opponents Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty have all renewed calls for a minimum-wage hike in recent months. Meanwhile some members of the more conservative wing of the party, like Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Rep. Ron Paul, have suggested abolishing the minimum wage altogether.
Polls show strong public support for a rise in the federal minimum wage, but approval drops off precipitously with the added condition that such a change could result in job losses. As a result, advocates' toughest mission is to convince the American people not that the minimum wage is too low, but rather that a raise will not have adverse consequences for the broader economy.
"This is good for the economy. This is good for economic growth and economic development," Rep. Tim Ryan said on Monday's conference call. "The folks who would see an increase in the minimum wage would have more money in their pockets.... It ripples throughout the economy."
The "Live the Wage Challenge" echoes the strategy of previous campaigns over food stamps, which Schakowsky has participated in three times, as well as similar efforts at the state level. The drives do not have a strong track record of persuading political opponents, but they do serve a purpose, Ivatury says. Advocates can later point to opponents' unwillingness to try the challenge as evidence that their opposition is based on theory, he argues, rather than based on the harsh reality of life on the minimum wage.
Even though only a handful of Democratic lawmakers have signed up for the challenge so far, Ivatury says they are not the key target, and he feels confident the issue will not lose priority on the party's platform.
"Those Democrats are actually sponsoring the bill to raise the wage, so they've already demonstrated their commitment," he said. "It's more important that folks who don't seem to understand actually try it and then make up their minds."
After a big push on the wage in the spring, progressives are working to prevent a loss of momentum as other issues and urgent crises crowd it out on the national stage. Advocacy groups have employed other tactics in recent months to bring attention to the issue, including a national bus tour. And as lawmakers prepare to head home for the August recess to face their constituents and campaign for reelection, organizers will be hoping this week's push can bring the issue back into the national conversation.