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The Fight for a Living Wage

Feb. 18, 2014
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We’ve seen enough hard times recently to know unemployment can lead to a life of poverty. But what kind of country are we living in when full-time workers also live in poverty?

And what could be worse than the Republican Party opposing raising the minimum wage so that people who work full time could make enough to rise out of poverty?

We have the answer right here in Wisconsin, where Republicans not only oppose raising the minimum wage, but also want to roll back local “living wage” ordinances that have existed since the 1990s so they can slash the pay of the lowest-paid workers even more.

What possible explanation could there be for Republican elected officials supporting such an ugly proposal to inflict more pain on their own most desperately poor constituents?

Like Bruce Springsteen said in explaining the actions of a serial killer on his chilling Nebraska album: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

That isn’t the way Republicans explain it, of course.

Republicans say they oppose raising the minimum wage above the present $7.25 an hour—that’s $15,000 a year, $3,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of three—because it would force businesses to close and stifle development if employers had to pay their lowest-paid workers a decent wage.

It’s not true, but that doesn’t stop Republicans from repeatedly making that claim even though the federal minimum wage has fallen far behind the cost of living, having lost 30% of its buying power since 1968.

If the federal minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.56 an hour today. President Barack Obama and Democrats want to increase the minimum wage to only $10.10 over two years.

But Republicans oppose that as well because, well, it’s supported by President Obama and Democrats.


Higher Wages Don’t Kill Jobs

History proves raising the minimum wage really doesn’t kill jobs. Over the years, many states, including Wisconsin, have raised their own minimum wages above the lagging federal minimum. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia do that today. Wisconsin, now under Republican control, doesn’t.

Republicans have been proved wrong again and again. There have been virtually no noticeable differences in job losses between states that have a higher minimum wage and those that don’t.

There is additional evidence right here in Wisconsin that raising minimum wage doesn’t kill jobs. That’s the evidence Republicans want to do away with by wiping out local living wage ordinances.

Since 1995, the city of Milwaukee has had a living wage ordinance that requires employers with service contracts to pay $9.51 an hour this year.

Madison and Dane County have had such ordinances since 1999, now paying $12.45 and $11.33 an hour, respectively. The Milwaukee County board just passed a living wage of $11.32 an hour.

Even though Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele supports a federal minimum wage increase, he’s vetoing the local one. But the board has enough votes to override Abele if it can hold all 12 of its original votes for a living wage.

Milwaukee County Supervisor David Bowen, who led the movement for a county living wage, urged state legislators not to interfere with local control.

“We’re not making them (the county’s lowest paid workers) rich—we’re talking about $23,000 as a base level of pay,” Bowen said.

An obvious fact is that for almost two decades these ordinances paying more than the minimum wage didn’t kill jobs or stifle development. It took the economic disaster of the Bush presidency to do that.

All living wage ordinances do is make life a little easier for people at the bottom who are working full time.

What sort of political leaders are we electing these days who wouldn’t want to do that? Republicans these days not only pass tax cuts that overwhelmingly go to their wealthiest constituents, but now they’re shamelessly proposing wage cuts for their constituents who earn the least.

We’ve known for a long time that Republican politicians really didn’t like poor people. They claimed it was because the poor were lazy, shiftless losers who preferred living off the government instead of getting a job.

So-called Reagan Democrats were working people fooled into thinking Republicans really cared about the working class.

Then, under the last Republican president, the U.S. experienced the second-worst economic disaster in its history. Suddenly, people who had worked all their lives were out on the street with no way to support their families.

And when those people slowly began re-entering the labor force, they often were forced to take low-wage service jobs paying much less than they’d earned previously.

A whole lot of folks who once thought they’d achieved the American dream today find themselves working full time and still living in poverty.

Now it turns out mean-spirited Republicans don’t really like poor people who have jobs, either.


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