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In Louisiana, Rock-Bottom Minimum Wage Is Becoming a Liability for Republicans

Republicans stubbornly defend $7.25 an hour in a state where more than one in four children live in poverty.

A restaurant worker participates in a "Wage Strike" demonstration, organized by One Fair Wage, outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill restaurant on May 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

May 11 saw a surprise in the Louisiana legislature, where lawmakers advanced a bill that would raise the wage floor for the first time since Congress set the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour back in 2009. Advocates and Democrats in the minority propose a wage hike during every legislative session, but a bill hasn’t made it to a floor vote in years.

Two Republicans on the Louisiana Senate’s labor committee abstained from the vote, allowing Democrats a 3-2 majority to approve the bill along party lines. The bill would raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2024 and $14 an hour by 2028. In Louisiana, $18 an hour is considered a living wage for an adult living with another working adult and one child, according to data crunchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

More than one in four children live in poverty in Louisiana, where Black organizers and economic justice groups have campaigned to raise the minimum wage for years. Like other red states, a law originally crafted by Republicans and business interests blocks individual cities from raising the minimum wage within their borders, even as inflation and an affordable housing crisis put the cost of living out of reach for many families.

Democratic voter power is concentrated in majority-Black cities such as New Orleans and Baton Rouge, but “state preemption” prevents local leaders from raising the minimum wage and setting other labor conditions. That power instead rests with the GOP-dominated legislature, which is the only entity that can put the question to voters. Louisiana is one of 24 states that does not allow citizens to collect signatures to put a referendum on the ballot.

However, Louisiana’s right-wing legislature routinely blocks the annual efforts by Democrats to raise the minimum wage in a state that is infamous for deep inequality, forced labor in prisons and the mass incarceration of Black people. Racial justice advocates say keeping the wage floor stuck in the federal basement is part and parcel to an economic and political system that has maintained a pool of cheap (or free) Black labor since the abolition of slavery.

Despite clearing the committee, Louisiana’s minimum wage bill still faces a steep climb to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards, a conservative Democrat who has supported a wage increase for years. Republicans hold a supermajority in the legislature’s lower chamber, where a committee rejected companion legislation earlier this month — but that didn’t stop lawmakers from giving themselves a raise.

Only one day earlier the same committee approved a bill that would raise their own salaries to 75 percent of the state’s median income, or about $40,000 a year. Under a GOP supermajority, all Democrats could do was point out the irony.

“If we feel that the people who are making these laws should get $40,000, then why can’t we give poor folks $10 an hour,” Democratic State Rep. Kenny Cox argued at the time.

In Congress, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is championing a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $17, which would have a big impact on Louisiana and the 19 other mostly red states where the federal minimum remains the law of the land. A handful of Democrats sided with Republicans to block an increase to $15 an hour in 2021 despite polls showing broad public support, and Sanders is determined to put fellow lawmakers on the record again before the 2024 elections.

In a recent op-ed, Sanders admits that even $17 is not a living wage — enough to afford basic living costs such as food and rent — in many parts of the United States. In Louisiana, $34 is considered a living wage for a single mother with one child, but the average retail worker makes $13.50 an hour.

“So it is not radical to suggest that raising the minimum wage to $17 an hour over a period of several years is the right thing to do,” Sanders wrote.

Thanks to inflation and congressional inaction, the minimum wage now has less purchasing power than any point in time since 1956, according to the Economic Policy Institute. When Congress fails to raise the federal minimum wage despite skyrocketing costs of living, the job falls on state and local governments. At least 30 states and 50 cities and counties have raised the minimum wage past $7.25.

Republicans often argue that raising the wage floor past $7.25 would hurt small businesses, which they often claim do not pay the minimum to anyone besides teenagers working a summer job. However, lower-wage workers of all ages are 46 percent more likely to make less than $15 an hour in the 20 states that rely on the federal minimum. Recent research has found that wage hikes are not “job killers” as opponents often claim.

In Louisiana, advocates hope that debate over the minimum wage bill in the state Senate will reveal cracks in the opposition. Ben Zucker, co-director of the economic and racial justice group Step Up Louisiana, pointed to a 2019 statewide survey that indicates widespread bipartisan support, with 81 percent of Louisianans approving of an increase to at least $8.50. Republicans usually kill wage bills in committee to avoid going on the record and angering voters, Zucker said.

“I think that the real piece here is that the state elections next year loom large over how people are voting in this session,” Zucker said in an interview.

It’s unclear whether Louisiana’s Democrats will face obstacles bringing the bill to the floor for debate and a vote in the Republican-controlled upper chamber. State Sen. Gary Carter Jr., a Democrat from New Orleans who authored the bill, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“‎There’s‎ no‎ way‎ you‎ wake‎ up‎ every‎ morning‎ and‎ say‎ minimum‎ wage‎ is‎ the‎ best‎ way‎ to‎ live‎. Absolutely‎ not‎,” said David Williams, a member of Step Up Louisiana, in a statement. “We always‎ talk‎ about‎ making‎ changes‎ — how‎ about‎ we‎ make‎ that‎ change‎ now.”

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