Raise the Minimum Wage: A Cry for Justice for America’s Low Wage Workers
by: Alison Reda '18
The United States has one of the highest poverty rates among developed countries, with a relative poverty rate of 17.7% and an absolute poverty rate of 9.4% in the mid-2000s (Iceland, 2013). Relative poverty measures poverty as it relates to society’s standards of living, while absolute poverty measures against a standard, constant income level (Iceland, 2013). Addressing poverty has become critical; however, a one size fits all approach does not exist. The great numbers of people in poverty reflect a variety of intertwining causes of poverty, in which not one single cause needs to be eradicated, but a number of causes must be addressed. This blog post will only examine one of the many causes of poverty, low wages, and will propose a policy solution to address this cause for the affected population.
The value of the minimum wage is declining, widening income inequality between top earners and lower income earners (Mishel, 2013, p.8), and contributing to poverty rates. As a consequence of technological advances, the decline in unions, and outsourcing jobs, people are working minimum wage jobs and barely staying afloat. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) (2016) published a map illustrating the number of hours an individual must work earning the minimum wage in each state to afford rent for a one bedroom apartment. A minimum wage worker could not afford to live in any of the states working a forty hour work week. On average across the United States, a minimum wage worker must work between sixty-one to seventy-eight hours a week to afford a one bedroom apartment (NLIHC, 2016). Moreover, a common perception is that minimum wage workers are teenagers or adults working part-time jobs. However, fifty-five percent of workers earning minimum wage or less than the minimum wage were over the age of twenty-five in 2015 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). Taking the cost of raising a family, food, transportation, and other living expenses into perspective, the NLIHC map indicates that these adult minimum wage workers are not making enough money to live anywhere in the United States.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25, which is below the 2013 poverty wage level of $8.11 for a full-time single parent of one child (Marsh, 2013), and 7.8% less in real value than the minimum wage in 1967, which was $8.25 in real value (Mishel, 2013, p.3). On the other hand, from 1979 to 2013 the top 1% of earners’ wages increased by 138%, and very high wage workers’ in the 95th percentile wages increased by 41% (Mishel, Gould, & Bivens, 2015). The combination of the decrease in real value of minimum and low wage workers, who experienced a 5% decrease in wages from 1979 to 2013 (Mishel, Gould, & Bivens, 2015), and the increase in real value of the highest wage workers widens the income inequality gap. As aforementioned, poverty has multiple interlaced causes, and low wages contribute to income inequality, which can lead to poor housing conditions, neighborhoods, education, and other factors that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.
In order to address the declining real wage value of minimum wage and its impact on poverty, Senators Bernie Sanders and Patty Murray and Representatives Bobby Scott and Keith Ellison propose the Raise the Wage Act. Once enacted, this bill “would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024 and would be indexed to the median wage growth thereafter” (“Raise,” 2017, p.1). Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour would help to lift minimum wage workers out of poverty, and address the needs of the 19 million children of our low wage workers (“Raise,” 2017). Furthermore, by indexing the minimum wage to median wage growth, the real value of the minimum wage will be protected, and the income inequality would be limited from increasing (“Raise,” 2017). This proposed bill would create a living wage, allowing for minimum wage workers to afford a one bedroom apartment without working over the standard forty hour work week, if even given the opportunity to do so. While minimum wage workers are the population that would be directly impacted, other low-wage workers are indirectly impacted by the minimum wage as their pay rates are relative to the minimum wage, and would, therefore, increase (Mishel, 2013). The Raise the Wage Act would largely benefit women, at about 34% who would receive a pay increase, and children, increasing 32% of working mothers’ wages and that of 17% of working fathers (“Raise,” 2017).
The Raise the Wage Act would contribute to the advancement of human rights and economic justice because it will lift hard working people out of poverty and decrease income inequality. People would be able to work one job with a normal work week while still being able to survive financially, increasing their physical and mental health. Income inequality will stagnate or decrease, helping to lift people out of poverty by affecting other aspects of their lives. These aspects include the ability to move into a safer neighborhood, access nutritional foods, decrease incarceration risk, increase educational opportunities, and so on, which increase the overall well-being of people affected by the increased minimum wage. Minimum wage workers often have to prioritize and make unhealthy decisions, such as skipping meals or eating less nutritional meals in order to pay the rent. Their health may become jeopardized as their jobs do not allow them to support themselves entirely, as whole individuals. This proposed policy would provide these individuals in their entirety with a living wage to afford housing, food, and other expenses needed to survive and live comfortably in the United States.
The mission of social work as a profession “is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty” (NASW, 2008). Social workers have a stake in this issue of low wages and income inequality because it contributes to high poverty rates and negatively impacts the overall well-being of low wage workers and their dependents. These low wage workers live in poor housing conditions in unsafe neighborhoods with few opportunities for their children to grow into healthy, well-paid adults. Social workers should advocate to address this issue of the declining value of the minimum wage to support economic justice and all of the issues that are entangled in the fight for increased real wage value of the minimum wage.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (2016). Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/minimum-wage/2015/home.htm
Iceland, J. (2013). Poverty in America: A Handbook, (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Marsh, B. (2013). The Rise and Fall of the Minimum Wage. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/12/01/sunday-review/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-minimum-wage.html?_r=0
Mishel, L. (2013). Declining Value of the Federal Minimum Wage is a Major Factor Driving Inequality. Issue Brief #351. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/files/2013/minimum-wage.pdf
Mishel, L., Gould, E., and Bivens, J. (2015). Wage Stagnation in Nine Charts. Economy Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation/
NASW Code of Ethics (2008). Retrieved from http://www.naswdc.org/pubs/code/code.asp.
National Low Income Housing Coalition (2016). Out of Reach 2016: 2016 Hours at Minimum Wage Needed to Afford Rent. Retrieved from http://nlihc.org/sites/default/files/oor/OOR_2016_Min-Wage-Map.pdf
“Raise the Wage Act” (2017). Retrieved from https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/15-minimum-wage-fact-sheet-2017?inline=file