Raising the Minimum Wage Must Be a Central Issue in 2020 Election

As the 2020 election season nears, it’s a fair bet that wages will become a central focus of policy arguments both within the Democratic Party and also between Democrats and Republicans. In public forums, the leading Democratic candidates — pushed leftward on economic issues by candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as by grassroots campaigns such as Fight for $15 — have all come down in favor of a minimum wage that would, over a number of years, increase to at least $15 per hour. But some, such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, have in recent weeks gone beyond that and called for wages in high cost-of-living cities and states to reach $15 per hour sooner and to then rise beyond $15 as inflation adjustments kick in.

In January, a Hill-HarrisX poll found 55 percent of respondents favored a $15 minimum hourly wage; and another 27 percent favored raising it but not to $15. Only about 5 percent of those polled favored eliminating the minimum wage entirely.

Yet, despite the popularity of living wage measures, in recent years the GOP in Congress has united against legislation to increase the earning power of those at the bottom of the economy. Last month, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told Congress the administration opposed any increase in the minimum wage. Trump himself has been all over the map on the issue, at times seeming to tack toward supporting a small increase in the federal minimum wage, at other times seeming to want to entirely scrap the federal minimum and leave it to the discretion of the states.

This isn’t just a technocratic tug of war, it’s a deeply moral issue. Low wages are locking millions of Americans into a debilitating poverty. Entire industries, from fast food to discount superstores, are built around low-wage models. And their workforces are playing a constant, unwinnable game of catch-up as a result.

In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 1.532 million hourly workers earned the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Another 1.8 million tipped workers and full-time students, both categories excluded from minimum wage requirements, earned below the federal minimum. Combine the two, however, and that still came to only about 4.3 percent of the labor force. Three years later, the most recent year for which numbers are available, that number had declined to 2.3 percent of the hourly workforce. (It is worth noting, though, that the federal minimum wage did not increase at all during that time period, meaning that, because of inflation, some of those listed in 2017 as earning just above the minimum wage might not actually have had any more real purchasing power than they did in 2014.)

However you slice it, these numbers hide a much larger well of poverty just north of the official poverty line. In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that a staggering three in 10 hourly workers earned between $7.25 and $10.10 per hour. In the 2016 election season, more than 16 million workers were earning within that range. These workers struggle every month to pay their bills and to square a financial circle that simply can’t be squared. Even though they aren’t considered by government statistical measures to be in poverty, in reality they are deeply economically insecure, and particularly vulnerable to housing crises, to lapses in health insurance coverage, to hunger and to predatory debt. Their kids often grow up lacking access to basic amenities more middle-class children take for granted. Since the federal minimum wage hasn’t been increased in more than a decade, employers can, quite accurately, say they are paying them above the mandated minimum.

Because the feds are defaulting on this vital issue, it is falling to states and to localities to try to shape wage increases in their jurisdictions. California, Washington, New York and many other states now have minimum wages far higher than the federal minimum. Elsewhere, in more conservative states, cities and counties are trying to plug the gap.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, 44 counties and cities around the United States now have minimum wage ordinances distinct from those of the states of which they are a part. This makes them, according to the Center’s report, “laboratories of policy innovation on labor standards.” It also makes them lightning rods in a raging battle between conservative state policy makers and more progressive city and council officials.

While Seattle, San Francisco, New York and many other large cities now have, with the support of the states of which they are a part, implemented Living Wage legislation, elsewhere local efforts are being stymied. A couple years ago, Birmingham, Alabama’s, city council voted to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. The city, however, was promptly prevented from implementing the change, because the state legislature passed, and Gov. Robert Bentley signed, the Uniform Minimum Wage and Right-to-Work Act, which prevented cities in Alabama from going it alone on raising their wages. A similar situation prevails in New Orleans, in St. Louis, in Kansas City, in Louisville, in Miami Beach, and in many counties in Iowa. As Mike Ludwig wrote for Truthout in April, 28 states now have laws on the books preventing cities from independently increasing their minimum wages. The result is that millions of Americans living in jurisdictions where local officials, or in some cases the electorate via ballot measures, have voted to increase the minimum wage are seeing their political will thwarted.

This is an issue the Democrats ought to take on in full force. The public clearly supports raising the minimum wage, and millions of impoverished households would benefit mightily from such a policy. It’s one of those too-rare instances where doing what is morally right also happens to align with doing what is politically popular. At every level of government — federal, state, and local — there is a yawning political space now open for a powerful minimum wage movement to impact the upcoming elections.