WASHINGTON— Lawmakers are negotiating over a $15 minimum wage and if it should be included in the coronavirus relief package now before Congress. What is there to negotiate? This should be a done deal. The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009, when it rose from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour, the last step in a three-step phase-in approved by Congress in 2007, when Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was still there to ride herd on his Senate colleagues to do the right thing.
Kennedy died in August 2009, and for the last decade there hasn’t been a clarion call from Congress to boost the wages of people at the lowest end of the income scale. President Biden is calling on Congress to deliver this much-needed raise, saying people who work 40 hours a week should not have to live in poverty. He points out that if the federal minimum wage had been indexed to rise with the cost of living, it would be over $20 an hour.
Critics say raising the minimum wage will cost jobs and put small businesses out of business. This strains credulity. If everybody must meet the same criteria, a boost in the minimum wage might well raise the cost of some products, but it would be minimal. Conversely, playing the devil’s advocate, what about lowering the minimum wage, to four dollars an hour. Would that make sense? Of course not, so why not all join hands and do what the economy and decency demand.
People earning these low wages must depend on government subsidies for food and rent while the businesses that employ them get away with paying what can fairly be called impoverishing wages. In other words, the government is subsidizing these businesses, effectively paying half of the wages for their minimum wage employees. It is fiscally and morally wrong for the federal government to enable businesses to shirk their duty and responsibility to pay fair and livable wages by providing these stop-gap measures.
Actually, this process is well underway. Twenty-five states are raising their minimum wage in 2021 though none to the $15 mark The most ambitious are California and Massachusetts, which will get there by January 1, 2023, and Illinois by 2025. Florida just voted to raise its state’s minimum wage to $15 over the next six years.
Gradualism is the weak watchword, and even after voters have their say as they did in Florida in last year’s election, favoring the $15 minimum wage, it takes a while to work its way into the system. It doesn’t happen overnight even though it should.
For all of Biden’s strong rhetoric favoring working men and women, he must deal with the reality of a Senate heavily weighted to favor the smaller, redder states where wages are often far less than they are in the bigger, bluer states like California and Massachusetts, where higher wages are needed to be competitive in the workplace, and Biden must keep all 50 Democratic senators on the same page if he’s to get the $15 minimum wage into his America Rescue Plan.
Or Biden could do what he’s doing, which is negotiating a $15 minimum wage to be phased in over a period of several years. It seems so miserly when you step back and realize that someone even earning that amount of money would be unlikely to get very far out of poverty.
The safety net is needed and important, but if workers were paid a fair wage, there would be less of a strain on government. Implementing a $15 federal minimum wage is a needed and necessary step toward the fair restructuring of the economy that Biden promised, and a strong show of support for the working men and women whose votes decide who is president.
Douglas Cohn’s latest books are World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers) and The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency.