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Issue of the Week: The Fair Wage Movement

Dec. 20, 2013
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Pope Francis may be the highest-profile advocate for economic justice but there are millions of workers across the country who support an increase in the minimum wage. Mainstream economists have shown that increasing the minimum wage will stimulate the economy, since low-wage workers will spend virtually every dollar they earn just to pay for the bare essentials. Higher income employees who get salary increases, on the other hand, will often save a portion of this additional income so the impact on the economy is not as great.

Fast-food workers have gone on strike throughout the country to draw attention to their plight, but they aren’t alone. Most workers in the service and health care industries earn the minimum wage, $7.25, or just above it, which isn’t enough to lift them out of poverty. Minimum wage and near minimum wage workers often have to rely on subsidies even though they are working full time at very taxing jobs. In fact, a study by researchers from the University of California Berkeley and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that low-wage fast-food workers use about $7 billion per year in taxpayer-subsidized programs—such as Medicaid, FoodShare or the Earned Income Tax Credit—because they earn so little. Wisconsin fast-food workers use about $166 million annually in taxpayer-subsidized programs, the study calculated. That means that taxpayers are providing a huge subsidy to corporations that pay their employees too little to survive. Walmart’s low prices are maintained in part because their low-wage workers are subsidized by taxpayers.

Raising the minimum wage has wide approval, too. A new study from UW-Milwaukee shows that a whopping 76% of Wisconsin registered voters and 61% of business owners support increasing the minimum wage.

In addition to the movement to raise the minimum wage, the living wage movement is gaining traction. Milwaukee County is debating a living wage ordinance for its lowest-paid workers. The ordinance, developed by Supervisor David Bowen, would raise the hourly wages of roughly 8,000 workers to $12.45, which is just above the federal poverty line for a family of four. About 5,500 of these workers provide care to people who are elderly or frail and 2,500 are airport workers. A study by the Madison-based Center on Wisconsin Strategy estimated that the extra wages would provide a $38 million boost to the local economy annually, because these workers would spend a significant portion of their paychecks in Milwaukee businesses.

There is no one, specific way to lift people out of poverty. However, someone working a full-time job in the United States of America should not be living in poverty. But we’re heartened that workers, local representatives, the faith community and fair-minded business owners realize that low-wage workers deserve to be paid fairly and treated with dignity. Let’s listen to them and act.


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