For May Day 2019, workers and allies participated in rallies and events, nationwide, to call attention to income inequality, the cost of living and the strength of families. One particular focus in the United States: The need to raise the federal minimum wage.
Ask someone to describe a minimum-wage worker and the person might evoke the image of a teenager who flips burgers after school – someone who might not really need that paycheck.
Minimum-wage workers are often young, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers under 25 make up only half of those paid at or less than the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour.
For families trying to live on that low wage, the proposed Raise the Wage Act – aiming for $15 by 2024 – could make an enormous difference, a possibility that many workers and families noted on May Day 2019.
David LeGault of Minneapolis, Minnesota worked for five years at a store selling used books, movies and music, a minimum-wage position he took to help his daughter. His daughter is a Type 1 diabetic, diagnosed at just 16 months old. The condition is so rare for a child this young that she nearly died, becoming catatonic before receiving the proper medical diagnosis.
“Managing her blood sugar is more or less a full-time job for both my wife and me,” said LeGault, who has two children and whose wife also works full-time.
His story is similar to other minimum wage workers.
“The average worker who would be affected by an increase in the minimum wage earns more than half their family’s total income,” said David Cooper, senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). “These are the primary breadwinners for their families. This is not just spending money. This is the family’s primary source of income.”
Cooper, whose work at EPI focuses on low-income and middle-income workers, said those earning the federal minimum wage are disproportionately women and people of color. He said a wage increase would help reduce wage gaps relating to gender and race.
“If you look at the group of folks who would be affected by changes in the minimum wage, the average person is a 35-year-old woman who works full-time, probably has some college experience and might have a family,” Cooper said.
The federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2009, failing to keep pace with inflation – and with work. The national minimum wage reached its highest point in the 1960s in relationship to productivity. But productivity – or, how much workers produce per hour – has roughly doubled since then.
“If we don’t raise the minimum wage higher than where we were at in 1968, we’re essentially saying that low-wage workers in this country don’t deserve to receive any benefits in productivity over the last 40 years,” Cooper said.
LeGault, who lives in a city that now has an hourly wage of $10.25 or $11.25 depending on the number of employees at a business, said he suspects most people associate minimum-wage work with lack of education or work ethic, but he worked hard at his bookstore job. Still, he felt a need to explain himself.
“Whenever anyone asked what I did for a living, I’d always have to preface it with something else – I work at a bookstore, but I also have a book coming out next year – because I felt embarrassed, like I should be able to provide for my family at my age,” he said.
Cooper said a low federal minimum wage plays a role in income inequality.
“A generation ago, the lowest-paid worker in this country was being paid a little more than half of what the average worker was getting,” he said. “Today, the lowest-paid worker gets less than a third of what a typical worker in the economy makes.”
To help close that gap, Democrats in Congress proposed the Raise the Wage Act, aiming to double the federal minimum wage by 2024. In the meantime, states, cities and counties are considering other proposals that would raise wages for workers. Twenty states will increase their minimum wage after legislative battles in 2019, including California, New York and Delaware.
In recent years, some cities, such as Seattle, have raised their minimum wages to $15 per hour, following worker-led actions.
Policymakers who oppose increasing the minimum wage argue that it could hurt employment and are primarily focused on corporate profits, according to The Washington Post. Supporters of minimum wage increases disagree with that argument.
More increases in minimum wages at the state level will underscore continued wage disparities across the country.
Working retail in order to care for his daughter, LeGault felt trapped by his minimum-wage job.
“Even though the wage was nowhere near enough to provide for our family, we became dependent on [it] and felt unable to make more meaningful changes,” he said.
For LeGault, raising the minimum wage means the potential to make family and job decisions more carefully.
“It would mean more freedom and flexibility,” he said. “It would mean people don’t have to feel committed to a bad job or toxic work environment because they’re afraid of losing the small wage they are receiving.”
Economic Policy Institute’s Cooper said the increase could benefit local economies as well, leading to purchases that weren’t possible on $7.25 an hour. For families on the brink of poverty, the financial difference would be huge.
“That could be the difference between being able to afford an apartment or not, being able to afford a car or not, being able to pay tuition payments or not,” Cooper said. “These are incredibly consequential dollars when you’re someone who is living at or near the poverty line.”
Although a wage increase would improve conditions for working families, it is still not a cure-all.
“The current minimum wage is so low that any single person with one child is going to be below the federal poverty line if they’re working year-round,” Cooper said. “Going to $15 by 2024 would finally take the federal minimum wage above the federal poverty line for a family of four. But that’s a very low bar.”
Alison Stine is a writer and editor, based in Appalachia. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The Guardian and Longreads. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
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