March 26, 2011- As the nation grapples with a jobs crisis and unemployment hovers near 9 percent, it is easy for policy makers to forget the plight of those who work but earn very little. There are about 4.4 million workers earning the minimum wage or less, according to government statistics. This amounts to about 6 percent of workers paid by the hour. They need a raise.
Today, a worker laboring 40 hours a week nonstop throughout the year for the federal minimum wage could barely keep a family of two above the federal poverty line. Though it rose to $7.25 an hour in 2009, up $2.10 since 2006, the minimum wage is still lower than it was 30 years ago, after accounting for inflation. It amounts to about $1.50 an hour less, in today’s money, than it did in 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were killed, Richard Nixon was elected president and the economy was less than a third of its present size.
The minimum wage has many opponents among big business and Congressional Republicans. In Nevada, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce is pushing to repeal the state’s minimum wage, a whopping $8.25 an hour. Representative Darrell Issa, the California Republican, has proposed a bill in the House that would effectively cut the minimum wage in states where it was higher than the federal threshold by allowing employers to count health benefits toward wages.
Opponents argue that raising the minimum wage would inevitably lead to higher unemployment, prompting companies to cut jobs and decamp to cheaper labor markets. It is particularly bad, the argument goes, to raise it in a weak labor market. Yet with unemployment likely to remain painfully high for years to come, this argument amounts to a promise that the working poor will remain poor for a long time.