Work full time at a minimum wage job and you'll still end the year $7,000 below the poverty line. Why not fix that?
By Gabrielle Karol
NEW YORK (Learnvest) -- Jobs, jobs, jobs: If there's been one theme of the 2012 election, it's been employment. And for the first time since 2008, some significant progress has been made: The unemployment rate is 7.8%, the lowest it's been since President Barack Obama took office.
But not all jobs are created equal. While 60% of job losses since the recession have been midwage positions, 58% of the growth has been in low-wage jobs. Many of these added positions pay the minimum wage or little more than the minimum wage.
In light of the growing population of low-wage earners and the ongoing discussion of income inequality in the United States (the 99% vs. 1%, or the 47% vs. 53%), we wanted to take a closer look at the current minimum wage in the United States.
In fact, this summer, the Fair Minimum Wage Act was introduced in Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9.80 from $7.25 and index it to inflation, making it a current political issue. Though the bill is sitting with a committee awaiting further action, if it passes, it could significantly change millions of Americans' answer to the question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
The state of minimum wage
The first minimum wage law was passed in 1938, guaranteeing workers at least 25 cents an hour (woo!). The heyday of the minimum wage was in the late 1960s, when the wage was high enough relative to the cost of living to provide a secure income. Since then, it's risen to $7.25 an hour, or $15,080 a year for full-time employees. While the dollar amount has increased over time, the real value has not -- it has declined by 30% since 1968, because over the years the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation. Workers aren't getting as much bang for their buck, so to speak.
The yearly $15,080 is below the poverty level for a two-person household. And for tipped workers, the minimum wage is even lower: a measly $2.13 an hour.
While the minimum wage barely provides a solid living as is, studies have shown that workers earning the minimum are actually being underpaid by employers. A 2008 study of low-wage workers in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York showed that 26% were paid less than the minimum wage, 70% worked off the clock before or after their shift and 76% were underpaid for overtime hours. All told, this resulted in an average loss of $2,634 in earnings for these workers.
Proponents of the Fair Minimum Wage Act argue that raising the minimum wage to $9.80 and "indexing" it to inflation so it rises at the same rate would help ensure that these low-wage earners take home enough salary to live on and pay for basic goods and services. But would it?
Reasons for raising the minimum wage
1. The minimum wage is below the living wage, exacerbating poverty in the United States.
A living wage ensures that a worker can pay for basic necessities such as housing, food, transportation to work and health care. A common definition states that the living wage should be high enough that no more than 30% of take-home pay needs to be spent on housing.
But full-time employees being paid the minimum wage have incomes below the living wage in most areas of the country. In dollar terms, that means that if you are a full-time worker supporting a family of four on the current minimum wage, your household income is $7,000 below the poverty line. Proponents of raising the minimum wage to a living wage argue that doing so would give workers and their families a better chance of climbing out of debt and poverty.
As an increasing number of workers take on low-wage jobs, poverty in the United States has increased: In 2005, 12.6% of Americans were living in poverty, compared with 15.7% this year, or almost 50 million citizens - the highest rate of poverty since 1965. Raising the minimum wage to a living wage would help reverse this trend.
2. A higher minimum wage means more consumer spending overall.
Higher wages don't just benefit the individual earner; they also help the economy by increasing consumer spending. One 2011 study by the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank showed that every dollar added to the hourly minimum wage resulted in $2,800 in yearly additional consumer spending by that worker's household.
Additionally, a 2009 study from the Economic Policy Institute predicted that upping the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour would result in $60 billion in additional spending over two years. Furthermore, this additional consumer spending would lead to more job creation -- an estimated 100,000 new full-time jobs.
3. Workers making more than the minimum wage would also see their earnings increase.
Many workers who earn more than the minimum wage -- 28 million, in fact -- would also see their earnings increase as a result of raising the minimum wage, says the Economic Policy Institute. Why? The minimum wage is seen as the base number from which their wages are calculated, so if that number is raised, their earnings will increase accordingly ... which will lead to even more consumer spending.
Is there a good reason not to raise the minimum wage?
With all the seeming benefits to raising the minimum wage, is there a compelling reason not to raise it, at the very least to a living wage? And why shouldn't it be indexed to inflation?
Those opposed to raising it often argue that doing so will put too great a strain on employers concerned with keeping costs down, which will ultimately lead to companies being forced to slash jobs to stay afloat. Economists such as Arindrajit Dube of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, showed that over a 16-year period, areas that raised the minimum wage did not see more employment loss than comparable areas with lower minimum wages.
Additionally, two-thirds of low-wage workers in the United States work for large companies with 100 or more employees who are more able to absorb the higher cost of hourly wages, as opposed to small mom-and-pop operations. Looking at the 50 largest employers of low-wage workers (companies such as Wal-Mart (:WMT), KFC (:YUM) and McDonald's (:MCD)), more than 90% were profitable last year, meaning they are unlikely to be in a position where raising the minimum wage to a living wage would significantly affect their ability to retain the same number of employees.
So will the bill pass?
While more than 100 Democrats helped introduce the bill in the House of Representatives during the summer, most Republicans will likely argue that the fragile economy prohibits such a drastic change to the minimum wage. Though Obama campaigned in 2008 on the promise to raise the minimum wage, he has not been active in that fight in some time, and in March, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney retracted comments he had made as recently as January saying he would like to see the minimum wage indexed to inflation.
Despite the likely political standstill on the minimum wage issue, recent polls have shown that 70% of Americans support raising the minimum wage and believe doing so has the power to help the economy in these uncertain times.
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