–Article by Haroon Atcha
special to The Courier
If you work full time in Illinois at a minimum wage job, you earn about $660 each paycheck before taxes. For a regular college student, that money has to stretch pretty far. Books, tuition, gas, rent, food and insurance are just the basic necessities of life that need to be paid for out of that small sum of money, and that’s only if you’re single and don’t have a child to take care of.
After Uncle Sam has taken his share and you’ve paid your bills, that $660 doesn’t seem so impressive. In fact, what’s more impressive is if that money somehow manages to cover all of those expenses. That’s a heavy burden for the nearly 1.5 million Americans considered “working poor,” people who fall below the poverty line despite working full or part time. To put it simply, that’s a problem.
The fact that we have an entire socio-economic class of workers who are unable to make a living on what our country deems to be a “minimum wage” is troubling. Not only do the working poor struggle to pay their bills, they now make up a majority of SNAP benefit (food stamps) recipients. In fact, college educated individuals are the fastest growing group within that majority. Worried yet? We are allowing hard working people to go hungry in the wealthiest nation on this planet; it’s criminal. Eight dollars and twenty five cents an hour isn’t enough to secure the basic necessities of existence. No human being can live with dignity on that amount of money.
Luckily, the answer to this problem is simple: raise the minimum wage.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama asked congress to “Give America a raise,” and without a doubt, the American Worker has earned it. Until about 1975, productivity and real wages in this country mirrored each other. Since then however, wages have stagnated. See that huge gap in the graph below? That’s the difference between how much Americans produce and how much they’re paid. In fact, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, if minimum wage had kept up with worker productivity, minimum wage would be $21.72 today. That’s money that American workers have earned for their work. As a country we’ve become more productive than ever and yet we’re paid less than ever. At first glance, it doesn’t seem very fair.
What’s fair however, doesn’t always make for good policy. A sensible person would need to see the economic repercussions of raising the minimum wage as well.
As it happens, the negative economic repercussions of raising the minimum wage are a bit overblown. You’ll hear people talk about how many jobs raising the minimum wage will kill, but the research doesn’t support that claim. According to the Think Progress organization, raising the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 will boost the GDP by $22.1 billion and the extra consumption spurred by the raise could support 85,000 new jobs.
Want a statistic closer to home? According to the Chicago Fed, raising minimum wage to just $9 an hour would boost consumer spending by $28 billion and boost GDP by 0.2 percent after considering the possibility of job loss.
Raising the minimum wage makes economic sense because minimum wage workers don’t earn enough to save money. Every dollar that a minimum wage worker earns is already spent by the time their paycheck comes. It’s a case that’s very similar to those drawing unemployment. Want to boost the economy? Extend unemployment benefits, because no other demographic is guaranteed to spend that money as thoroughly as the unemployed, or in this case, the working poor. There is not a better economic stimulus program than raising the minimum wage.
This is an idea that should appeal to parties on both sides of the political spectrum. If you have more conservative tendencies and want small government, you should know that keeping minimum wage at such a low rate costs the government money. If you want to end government dependency, raise the minimum wage to a point where full time workers don’t need government assistance to merely survive.
Think of it this way: every time the government gives SNAP benefits or federal housing assistance to people who work full time at minimum wage, it subsidizes the cost of employment for corporations. The government literally spends money on welfare benefits so that businesses can make a profit.
This issue isn’t even particularly controversial among Americans. A poll conducted by the National Employment Law Project showed huge majorities of support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. About 80 percent of people surveyed supported the move and 74 percent of people said congress should make it a priority. The support even cut across partisan lines, proving this is an issue all of us can stand behind. We need to pay our workers an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. When Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, he marched not only for racial justice, but for economic justice. He stood shoulder to shoulder with union workers and demanded dignity from our government. He proclaimed that “[…] an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring”.
What is the current minimum wage but an edifice that makes beggars of honest workers? It’s an institution that saps the dignity of hard working human beings. I don’t say this without my own background and bias. Like many of you, I worked full time at a minimum wage job for a very long time. I spent more than 40 hours a week doing backbreaking labor in addition to going to school full time. With my measly paycheck I tried to keep food on the table and pay whatever other expenses came about. Luckily I never had an emergency like a car accident or health problem during that time, but others aren’t so lucky. I learned a difficult lesson living life that way. I learned that it’s nearly impossible to get ahead in life, let alone survive on minimum wage.
Minimum wage doesn’t need to provide a comfortable lifestyle for everyone, but it does need to guarantee a living. It’s time we raise the minimum wage and respect the dignity of the American worker.