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‘Protect us, respect us, and pay us,’ Rev. Barber says of the necessity for a $15 minimum wage

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Including a minimum wage increase in a bill passing the Senate under budget reconciliation got a procedural boost on Monday. The Congressional Budget Office responded to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ queries with an assessment that the minimum wage would have broader budgetary effects than some other measures that have passed the Senate through reconciliation. That means the minimum wage should be eligible for inclusion in a COVID-19 relief package. Unfortunately, there’s also been a setback for the effort to raise the wage in the form of President Biden offering a pessimistic assessment of the likelihood of a minimum wage increase getting through the Senate—at least in its current form.

That’s not a reason to give up, though. It’s a reason to keep pressing on why this is so very important. The federal minimum wage has not gone up since 2009, and it’s literally a poverty wage. Full-time work at $7.25 an hour is barely above the poverty threshold for a single adult, and would leave a parent with one child in poverty. Increasing it to $15 gradually over years—such that by 2025, as in the current bill, inflation would have brought its value downto the equivalent of $13.33 to $14.41 in today’s dollars— would give nearly 32 million people a raise.

If simply lifting people out of poverty is not enough for you, understand that for every common objection to raising the minimum wage, there is a fact-based answer. Voters understand that. Raising the minimum wage is popular enough that voters in some unexpected states have passed increases. Most recently, Florida voters said yes to a gradual increase to a $15 minimum wage, so the Joe Manchins and Kyrsten Sinemas of the Senate should reconsider what they think they know about public support for raising the minimum wage.

They definitely don’t have a moral leg to stand on, as the Rev. William Barber recently pointed out.

“Listen: 55% of poor, low-wealth people voted for this current ticket. That’s the mandate,” he said. “The mandate is in the people who voted, not in the back slapping of senators and congresspeople. It’s the people who voted. And if we turn our backs now, it will hurt 62 million poor, low-wealth people who have literally kept this economy alive, who were the first to have to go to jobs, first to get infected, first to get sick, first to die. We cannot be the last to get relief and the last to get treated and paid properly. Protect us, respect us, and pay us.”

The minimum wage is also a racial justice issue, Barber said. “We cannot address racial equity if we do not address the minimum wage of $15. There’s no such thing as racial equity when you just address police reform and prisons but you don’t address the issue of economic justice. And if you address economic justice, guess what? It helps Black people, and white people, and brown people, and Latino people. It helps everybody. Everybody in, nobody out.”

The case is clear. What do opponents of minimum wage increases have? As the push to pass the Raise the Wage Act continues, expect to see some arguments that just don’t hold up.

For instance, opponents of raising the minimum wage themselves sometimes talk about racial justice—Sen. Rand Paul, for instance, said in January, “the people who lose their jobs first when you hike up the minimum wage are Black teenagers. So, you know, ‘why does Joe Biden hate Black teenagers’ should be the question. Why does Joe Biden want to destroy all these jobs?” 

Who are you going to turn to on racial and economic justice questions—Rand Paul or Rev. Barber? This is Paul telling us right off the bat that his objections are dishonest. The job losses Paul projects are also highly questionable, as in, most of the economists who have most seriously studied the effects of minimum wage increases on job loss or creation have found “negligible or zero effects on jobs.”

The funny thing is, teenage workers are often a favored Republican talking point against raising the minimum wage, in a completely different way. 

More commonly, the claim is that most of the people who’d get raises would be teenagers saving up for designer jeans or whatever. That it’s paid to people who don’t really need the money, so why put the burden on business owners? Concern for teenagers’ jobs of the sort Paul is feigning is not usually the posture. But when the “it’s teenagers who don’t need it” argument does come out—because someone’s probably going to raise it—consider this: just 17% of minimum wage workers are teenagers, and many of those are helping support their families. When the New Jersey minimum wage rose from $8 to $10 in 2018, 19-year-old Fiona Joseph told USA Today, “I didn’t have to work 25 hours a week in order to pay the electricity bill.”

Opponents of raising the minimum wage often claim to worry about small businesses. Some small business owners also worry. But while coverage of those worries, such as a New York Times story on how the $14 minimum wage is playing out in Fresno, California, may lead with a restaurant owner’s claims that “Every year we have had to make hard decisions to let labor go,” buried in the article you’ll often find a statistic casting doubt on those claims. Like the fact that Fresno’s restaurant employment rose 7% between 2016 and 2019. Reverse the emphasis and you get “Restaurant employment rises as minimum wage rises, but some restaurant owners say that’s why they’re cutting jobs.” Which … has a different feel than several paragraphs of regretful restaurant owner talking about the job cuts they’ve sadly been forced to make. 

Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do. The arguments against it don’t actually hold up. Unfortunately, there’s an entire political party opposed to ensuring that work pays a wage above poverty levels, and all they need to do is scare off a Democrat or two—that would be Manchin and Sinema—and they can keep tens of millions of people from getting a raise. 

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on February 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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