How could Barack Obama say, in his State of the Union speech, “let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour”? Back in 2008, Obama campaigned to have a $9.50 per hour minimum wage by 2011. Now he’s settling for $9.00 by 2015! Going backward into the future is the price that poverty groups and labor unions are paying by giving Mr. Obama a free ride last year on this moral imperative. How can leaders of poverty groups and unions accept this back-of-the-hand response to the plight of thirty million workers who make less today than what workers made 45 years ago in 1968, inflation adjusted? But, of course, the poverty groups and labor unions chose not to mobilize some of the thirty million workers who grow our food, serve, clean up and fix things for us to push for a meaningful increase in the minimum wage before Election Day. It gets worse. The Obama White House demanded “message discipline” by all Democratic candidates. That meant if Obama wasn’t talking about raising the minimum wage to catch up with 1968, none of the other federal candidates for Congress should embarrass the President by speaking out, including Elizabeth Warren, of all people, who was running for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. It didn’t matter that the U.S. had the lowest minimum wage of any major western country (Australia is over $15, France over $11, and the province of Ontario in Canada is $10.25 – all of these countries also have health insurance for all). It didn’t matter that several cities and 19 states plus the District of Columbia have higher minimums, though the highest – Washington state – reaches only to $9.19. It didn’t matter that two-thirds of low-wage workers in our country work for large corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s, whose top CEOs make an average of $10 million a year plus benefits. Nor did it matter that these corporations that operate in Western Europe, like Walmart, are required to pay workers there much more than they are paying Americans in the United States where these companies got their start. Haven’t you noticed how few workers there are in the “big box” chain stores compared to years ago? Well, one Walmart worker today does the work of two Walmart workers in 1968. That is called a doubling of worker productivity. Yet, many of today’s Walmart workers, earning less than $10.50 an hour, and are making significantly less than their counterparts made in 1968. Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, told me that minimum wage policy relates intimately to child poverty. Single moms with children on a shrinking real minimum wage “translates to child poverty” and is “creating another generation” of impoverished people. The arguments for a higher minimum wage, at least to reach the level of 1968, are moral, political and economic. James Downie writing in The Washington Post provided five reasons to raise the minimum wage: “1) it will help the economy; 2) it reduces poverty and inequality; 3) it reduces the ‘wage gap’ for women and minorities; 4) indexing the minimum wage is, well, common sense; and 5) it’s consistent with American values.” Downie gives historical perspective on just how far our economic expectations have slid when he quotes Theodore Roosevelt at the 1912 Progressive Party convention: “We stand for a living wage…enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living – a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for our old age.”
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