Raise the Roof to Raise the Floor

Robert Borosage

Today, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative George Miller offer a ray of light amid the austerity blight in Washington.  They are announcing introduction of a bill – the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 – to raise the minimum wage gradually to $10.10 and index it so it adjusts annually with inflation.  Their legislation would also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers (at present a miserly $2.13 per hour) for the first time in 20 years.

This common sense reform is long overdue.  The current federal minimum wage – $7.25 per hour – is not enough for a full-time worker to lift a family out of poverty.  The current rate is lower than it was in the 1960s, adjusted for inflation.  If the minimum wage had kept pace with rising worker productivity, it would be $21.72 per hour.

The decline in the value of the minimum wage is a reflection of the failure of the conservative era that began with Ronald Reagan.  It has produced Gilded Age inequality.  Today corporate profits are at record levels as a percentage of the economy; workers wages at record lows.  In the two years coming out of the Great Recession, the top 1 percent captured a staggering 121 percent of the nation’s income growth.  The rest of us lost ground.  The Wall Street Journal reports that nine Wall Street moguls pocketed a total of more than $1 billion in dividends and compensation last year.   At the same time, a full-time minimum wage worker – most of whom work not in small businesses but in large companies – can’t earn enough to lift her family from poverty.  It is time to raise the floor.

The Miller-Harkin legislation is an essential piece of the fundamental reforms needed if this economy is to work for working people.  If Washington had any sense, it would turn from the destructive fixation on austerity and begin debating – and moving – a bold agenda for good jobs and growth.

Not surprisingly, the effort to raise the floor will succeed only if Americans raise the roof.  House Speaker John Boehner has already announced Republican opposition.  The tired and discredited arguments are being trotted out.  Republicans argue an honest wage will cost jobs, despite numerous studies showing this isn’t true.  They argue reform will hurt small business, despite reality that most minimum wage workers work for large companies.  They argue inaccurately that the wage goes mostly to young workers, although it isn’t apparent why teenagers and young workers saddled with student debt shouldn’t get paid a living wage.

Speaker Boehner will refuse even to give this bill a vote – for if it came to the floor, it would surely pass.  It will require a national mobilization to demand legislators sign a discharge petition even to get it to a vote.  That will come next.

For now, enjoy this rare display of common sense in a city bereft of it.  Applaud two legislators working for working people in a city corrupted by big money.  And remember as wages decline, inequality increases and austerity bites, there are alternatives.  It does not have to be this way.

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