Toward a living wage

minimum wage

It is unfathomable that the $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage has not been increased in more than a decade, since 2007. It has remained flat through recession and recovery, through extremely high unemployment rates and much lower ones.

Republicans refuse to consider minimum wage increases, and in early March rejected a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Still, with the Democratic majority in Congress, the bill came out of committee on a 2820 party line vote.

Doing it themselves

While the federal government drags its feet, six states, the District of Columbia and several cities now have a minimum wage that will rise to $15 in a few years. Republican governor Larry Hogan vetoed legislation increasing the minimum wage. Both houses of the Maryland legislature overrode his veto, even though he melodramatically noted that a higher minimum wage would “devastate” the Maryland economy.

Unions, McDonald’s workers, and the Fight for Fifteen have fueled the national push to raise the minimum wage, especially as people have noted that wage stagnation has resulted in an extremely uneven economic recovery.

While those at the top are celebrating economic growth, those at the bottom have barely experienced it. And the current minimum wage produces annual pay of $15,080, assuming that someone works a full 40 hours a week all 52 weeks of the year – often unlikely because many minimum wage jobs are part-time jobs.

What does she do?

The poverty line for a family of three (a working mom and two children) is $16,910. A woman working full-time at the minimum wage is living below the poverty line. She qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), and possibly for federal housing aid if she can get it. Often, public housing and the list for housing subsidies is full, so assistance is not an option.

What is a woman earning such a low wage to do, living at the economic periphery? She houseshares, lives with family, or endures homelessness. She lines up to get food at food banks or from other charities. She struggles to make ends meet, while her congressional representative earns $174,000 a year whether they produce or not.

Too many of the people who earn the minimum wage, mostly women, are caretakers. They mind our children and our elders as nannies and home health workers. While we say that our children and elders are precious, we don’t pay the folks who care for them as if they are. Parking lot attendants who care for our automobiles often earn more than the people who care for our children, mothers, and grandmothers.

And yet the economy depends on them! How many working women would be hard-pressed to work if their nannies or home health workers stayed home? And how would the economy adjust to the absence of nearly half of the labor force?

Demand vs. pay

Ai-jen Poo, the executive director of the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance, recently spoke about workers in the care industry. Eighty-eight percent of these workers are women, mostly women of color. Demand for their services is increasing; pay is not.   All don’t make even the minimum wage, though their essential work is too often invisible.

Poo and her organization are raising the visibility of these workers so we can see them and so we can ensure that they are adequately paid. Most Americans will have to interact with the care industry at some point in their life, arranging help for elderly relatives or for children. The movement toward a living wage must include these workers.

Kudos to Maryland for taking a step in the right direction. Shame on House Republicans who are enjoying economic recovery but denying its benefits to those at the bottom.

Increasing the minimum wage lifts people out of poverty. Shouldn’t we all be able to support that?


Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available at www.juliannemalveaux.com. Click on this commentary at www.daytonatimes.com to write your own response

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