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The federal minimum wage is too low.
It’s unreasonable to believe that working people can make ends meet no matter how many hours they work for $7.25 during a week.
Forty hours is just $290; working 80 hours translates into just $580; in fact, if you worked ALL 168 hours in a week, your pre-tax pay would amount to $1,218 (or about $63,000 a year). Not a bad wage, except you’d have to work every single hour to earn that much. All of them.
We need to raise the national minimum. An effort to include an increase to $15 appears likely to fail as part of the COVID-19 rescue package, but work shouldn’t stop due to this setback.
In Maine, voters have demanded an increase in the minimum wage, which is now set at $12.15 per hour for 2021. The wage, which was incrementally raised to $12 an hour over several years, is indexed to increase with the cost of living.
Portland’s minimum wage also was raised by referendum last year and currently sits at a contested rate a little higher than $18 an hour with a hazard-pay provision, which is being challenged in court and inconsistently applied to wages in the city. It also includes a gradual three-year ramp to set the base minimum wage at $15 over three years.
As negotiations over the federal wage increase have continued – and, so far, failed – I struggle with one question.
If the votes aren’t there in the U.S. Senate to enact a $15 minimum wage as approved by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, would the better policy be to increase it to a smaller amount or to dig in and keep fighting for $15 with no guarantee of success – or even progress?
Republican U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton have proposed an increase to $10 an hour and Sen. Josh Hawley – one of the promoters of insurrection and of the Big Lie – is talking about a convoluted plan to increase wages through refundable tax credits.
The Romney-Cotton proposal is too low. Arkansas, Cotton’s home state, already has an $11 minimum wage, while Romney’s Utah is tied to the $7.25 federal wage. And Hawley’s plan is just another Republican giveaway of taxpayer dollars to support businesses that don’t pay a living wage.
But wouldn’t $10 or $11 or $12 be better for workers in Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Wyoming where the minimum wage is less than $10?
The politics are tricky. There’s national energy and strong bipartisan voter support to gradually raise the wage to $15 an hour. Democrats have the majority in the House and Senate and control the White House – and Democratic voters overwhelmingly support the higher wage.
For Democrats to negotiate a compromise would amount to a major disappointment for their base voters and independents. It would be like waving a white flag on a major campaign promise they helped them to win. And it would allow Republicans to take partial credit for a paycheck increase that most will never vote to support while also making the fight for $15 harder in the future.
The politics for a compromise are bad.
But for millions of hardworking people, a raise would help make their lives better – make rent a little easier to pay, put a little more food in the refrigerator or a little more gas in the car. That’s a worthwhile policy pursuit.
Were the vote mine to cast, I would support a gradual increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. And I hope Democrats keep fighting for it.
But if given the chance to support a smaller wage increase ( without a bunch of poison-pill riders), I’d have to consider it – bad politics or not – because a minimum wage of $7.25 is appalling and viscous. And every day it stands unchanged, it gets worse.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children.