The United States is the richest nation on earth. Despite this fact, millions of hard working Americans live check to check, struggling daily to make ends meet. Many have to make difficult choices between healthcare or childcare, having a meal to eat or having adequate heat. More than 11 million workers earn between $5.15 and $6.64 an hour, and 70 percent of them are age 20 or older. More than one quarter of the population earns less than $10 an hour.
At the current $5.15 an hour, men and women paid minimum wage earn merely $10,712 a year. A working couple with two children can barely live at poverty level ($18,850) from these earnings. Citing data from the Census Bureau and the Housing and Urban Development Department, a recent CBS news story reported that in only four of the nation’s 3,066 counties could a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage afford a typical one-bedroom apartment. In addition, government spending on Section 8 rental vouchers has declined. When one considers housing, childcare, food, transportation, healthcare, taxes and any miscellaneous expenses, it would take over $35,000 annually just for a single parent to support one child in an average American city without public assistance. That amounts to more than 140 work hours a week—an impossible feat.
In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, implementing the first federal minimum wage. Its purpose was to serve as a floor below which wages cannot fall. Between 1938 and 1949, the value of the minimum wage fluctuated between $3.00 and $4.00 per hour in current (inflation-adjusted) dollars. It reached its peak in 1968 at an inflation-adjusted value of nearly $8.00. The level of the minimum wage plummeted during the 1980’s when the Ronald Reagan administration refused to support increases, and in 1989 it was the lowest it had been since 1949. Although Congress raised the minimum wage in 1990 and 1991 and again in 1996 and 1997, these increases were not large enough to undo the damage done by the years of inaction. The minimum wage was last increased to $5.15 an hour on Sept. 1, 1997. The federal government’s failure to increase minimum wage during the 1980’s prompted many states to implement their own increases, and federal inaction since 1997 is once again prompting more states to do so. As of today the federal wage is still $5.15 an hour (30 percent less than it was in 1978), and only 12 states have increased it.
If minimum wage had the same value as it did in 1968, it would currently be $8.46. Although minimum wage has decreased since 1968, corporate profits have increased by more than 60 percent and retail profits have jumped almost 160 percent. CEO pay has also sharply increased while worker’s wages have gone down. In 1980, the average CEO at a major corporation made as much as 97 minimum wage workers. In 2000, they made as much as 1,223 minimum wage workers.
Many of us are thinking about securing jobs in the upper echelon of the income bracket after graduation, in fields like investment banking, medicine, law and business. It is crucial that we don’t forget the millions of men and women who work in vital fields that make our country function on a daily basis yet continue to receive inadequate compensation. For many reading this column, minimum wage was something earned in a part-time job during high school or summer to have spending money for outings with friends or perhaps to raise money for college costs. However, for many Americans who would have to work four fulltime jobs just to make $40,000, let alone be able to spend it on a year of tuition at Duke, minimum wage is a means of supporting an entire family.
Think for a second about how far $5.15 will go in 2005. At average prices of $1.80 a gallon, it will get about 2.9 gallons of gas. Two quarts of Tropicana orange juice, priced at $2.49 each. Barely three loaves of bread at $1.75 each. About half of a movie ticket at a whopping $10 in some cities.
In the wake of a nationwide campaign to secure a living wage upon which workers can stay out of poverty, not simply remain in it, President George W. Bush has once again proved the harshness of his “compassionate conservatism.” Bush, who fought so hard to give the wealthiest Americans more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts, refuses to fight for the poorest ones in insisting that he will not support a long overdue congressional increase of the minimum wage unless it includes provisions for states to “opt out,” in effect ending the federal minimum wage, and unless it includes billions of dollars in tax breaks for businesses. Many Republicans opposing an increase in the minimum wage claim that if wages increase, labor will be too expensive and many will lose jobs. However this has not happened after any of the previous increases and studies have proven that periodic increases in pay have little, if any, negative effect on employment. Minimum wage should be a means of providing basic necessities and earning a living. However, in the words of comedian Chris Rock, businesses and conservative politicians are sending a message that “minimum wage means: if we could pay you less, we would.”
Today, as the devastating and costly war in Iraq wages on, and as more than $40 million dollars is spent on ceremonies to inaugurate our president, I ask you to take a moment to reflect on our nation’s priorities. As donors from wealthy corporations enjoy extravagant balls, expensive dinners and hotel suites, think about the minimum wage worker who would have to shell out three hours of work just to sit in the cheapest bleacher seat ($15). The cost of living is rising daily, and incomes for those with the most wealth have grown at rates far exceeding inflation while the wage workers upon which the whole of society depends continue to be shortchanged.
If we can afford to give Bill Gates a tax cut, I see no reason why we can’t afford to give the woman who serves him a burger at McDonald’s or the man who pumps his gas a long overdue raise in wages. In 1936, President Roosevelt insisted that “a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy can plead no economic reason for chiseling workers’ wages.” In 2005, it is time to restore some dignity to the labor of working class Americans and reaffirm the value of a hard day’s work.
Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior. Her column usually appears every other Thursday.
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