A living wage for all

The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour has remained unchanged since 2009, and is widely acknowledged as too low for a full-time worker to live on. In fact, there are only 12 counties in the US - all in rural areas - where a minimum wage worker can afford to rent a 1-bedroom apartment. House Representative Al Green has introduced HR 122, the Original Living Wage Act of 2017, in an attempt to change that (he’s introduced previous versions of the same bill in 2014 and 2015). HR 122 would raise the minimum wage to be 15% above the official poverty threshold and recalculate to rise with inflation every four years. If it were enacted this year, it would put the minimum wage at around $13.50 an hour. The bill addresses two problems with the current minimum wage: that it isn’t high enough, and that it’s stagnant. The minimum wage has much less purchasing power than it used to. By requiring the minimum wage to be readjusted every 4 years, Representative Green’s proposed bill ensures that working families won’t fall too far behind.

On the local level, Washington has long had one of the highest state minimum wages in the country, and last year voters opted to raise it again to $13.50 by 2020. Of course, we also have the first two cities to pass a $15 minimum wage: Seatac’s 2013 ballot measure applies to businesses in and around the airport, and Seattle’s 2014 city ordinance has a multi-tiered phase-in period for businesses of different sizes. [insert box here with link and blurb on What’s My Wage?]

Cities and states across the U.S. have been giving their minimum wage workers a raise with increasing frequency in the last few years. But some states have been pursuing preemption laws with equal vigor. Preemption laws are when a state makes it illegal for local governments to set the minimum wage in their own municipality. In some cases, preemption laws also repeal any local wage laws that are already on the books. This was the case in St. Louis, which raised its citywide minimum wage to $11, only to have the state legislature preempt and repeal the ordinance - reverting the city’s minimum wage to $7.70.

Preemption has even ended up in the courts. In Alabama, the majority-white state legislature blocked the majority-black city of Birmingham from raising their minimum wage to $10.10 (from the federal minimum of $7.25; Alabama does not have a state minimum). Some Birmingham workers and civil rights groups sued the state for doing so, arguing that the legislature’s actions prevented the city from addressing the racial wage gap. The case was dismissed, but plaintiffs filed an appeal in the spring, so the fight isn’t over yet.

Minimum wage fights aren’t just happening in local governments, but have reached the halls of academia. The majority of research on the minimum wage so far tells us that increasing the wage has negligible effects on employment. But research that says otherwise tends to get a lot of traction - even if it has questionable methodology - because that’s what a lot of people want to hear. It’s always a good idea to take a critical eye to new evidence, especially if it contradicts what’s already out there. It’s also a good idea to see what actual workers on the ground are experiencing after a minimum wage increase.

The path to a livable minimum wage for all will likely be a long one, but we’ve made tremendous strides since the first Fight for $15 protests, and that progress is showing no signs of slowing down. Preemption laws and misleading studies may be setbacks, but not roadblocks. Watch this space for more updates.