Keeping Faith with the Minimum Wage

In the wake of the recent scandals
and news, one consensus issue demands more attention: raising the minimum wage. 

Audio: .mp3 hosted by Odeo  

 

Keeping Faith: States Bring Out the Best in America with the Minimum Wage

  

By H. Luke Shaefer 

 

Pundits tell us, and polls
suggest that today is a time of unprecedented bifurcation of the American
public. Deeply divided by party, by abortion, and by a war; conflicted
about religion, sexuality, and race, it is hard to believe that anything
ties our country together. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming
midterm election affects this story.  

 

In the wake of the recent scandals
and news, one story which has gotten less attention than it deserves
is the quiet emergence of a consensus issue: raising the minimum wage. 
As the current federal level of $5.15 sinks to its lowest purchasing
power in decades, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center finds that
86 percent of respondents supported raising the federal wage to $6.45.
Other polls support this finding and provide compelling evidence that
a large majority of Americans favor a minimum wage raise. 

 

How can a divided country express
such unanimity on this, a liberal issue? It goes back to values.
My own support of the minimum wage stems from my Episcopalian faith
and a belief in the ultimate importance of respecting others. At times
my religion has failed to live this call. However, this commandment
is a universal value that we must work toward. To my knowledge, every
faith calls followers to love others. 

 

For better or worse, labor
defines people in many ways in our Country. Respecting work with a wage
minimum is one way we respect people, and I believe the centrality of
this commandment is why the minimum wage receives broad support. People
who work hard should be able to support themselves and their families. 

 

Despite tremendous support,
however, another deep American value rests on the adage "actions speak
louder than words." With such immense support, where is the legislative
action? At the federal level, the answer is obvious: Republican control
means such measures never see the light of day, and this is doubly true
of the current radically-right regime. 

 

However action is springing
up on another level, as states across the country take matters into
their own hands. Over twenty states have passed minimum wage increases,
covering over half the U.S. population. Even more are considering a
hike, and not just the usual suspects. While the majority of raises
to date have been enacted by blue-tinted states, others have joined
this group including North Carolina and Arkansas. 

 

Advocates in other conservative
states are utilizing ballot referendums to pass higher minimum wages.
In 2004, Florida and Nevada carried such referendums on the same ballot
in which Bush won a majority. These initiatives passed by 71 and 68
percent respectively, meaning that a significant population voted for
Bush AND for the minimum wage. Advocates in other states are following
the trail blazed by Florida and Nevada. Voters in Arizona, Colorado,
Missouri, Montana, Nevada (because it must be approved a second time
there), and Ohio will get to vote on a minimum wage raise in their state
in November. 

 

The emergence of a consensus
issue, and the explosion of minimum wage action across the country imbues
me with hope for the future of America. Of course the limits of this
policy are obvious. It only affects workers, and an average wage raise
of $6.75 is still well below what people need to support themselves
and their families. 

 

However, with politics comes
pragmatism. Being faithful Democrats means seeking out common ground
and connecting immediate issues like the minimum wage to other important
ones like health care and child care. By doing this, we may be able
to connect with those who pundits tell us are bitterly opposed to Democrats,
and in finding common ground, can we build toward a more just society,
piece by piece. 

 

What's certain is that Republicans
are on the wrong side of this issue and the wrong side of dominant American
values. If Democrats are able to take control of the House or Senate,
this is an issue that should go straight to the top of the agenda. Our
leaders in Washington need to use this issue to publicly force opponents
to either support a raise for hardworking Americans, or admit to their
opposition. We can win on this issue and in doing so, keep faith with
ourselves and our neighbors. Let's not miss the opportunity. 

 

H. Luke Shaefer is a researcher
from Chicago. He is a co-author of the recent report
"The Florida Minimum Wage After One Year" and author of
"State Minimum Wage Laws: Examining the Case of Illinois", which
will appear in the Journal of Poverty later this
year.

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