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A Fairer Minimum Wage for Workers

Michael J. Ring

On Wednesday, the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute released a study, finding that the latest minimum wage increase did not result in layoffs or delays in hiring. This study refutes the claims of big business, notably the National Restaurant Association, that such hardships have followed last year's increase of the federal minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.15 an hour.

Considering that many companies have turned record profits in the past several years, it becomes blatantly obvious to anyone who stops and thinks analytically about our nation's present economic state that it is the working poor who bear the disproportionate share of this nation's economic adversity. Indeed, the restaurant business today is booming and needing to wait for a table on weekdays is not uncommon; it is certainly not the owners of these establishments who are struggling. The opposition of large trade groups to the minimum wage increase does not flow out of a need for corporate survival. It is derived from a spirit of corporate greed.

Even with the latest 90-cent increase, the purchasing power of the minimum wage stands far below its potency in the last generation. Measured in 1995 dollars, the minimum wage was $6.45 an hour in 1968 and $5.95 an hour as late as 1980. The last two decades have witnessed a steady decline in purchasing power; the increases signed by George Bush in 1989 and Bill Clinton in 1996 were not enough to reverse this trend.

A full-time worker earning minimum wage makes about $10,300 a year. This figure is $3,000 below the poverty level for a family of three, and the poverty level itself is artificially low compared to the real expenses families face in this age. Clearly, a full-time wage earner cannot support a family at $5.15 an hour and would probably struggle just to support himself or herself alone.

A common shot fired by business lobbyists is that most minimum wage earners are teens, who are not working to support a family. But the conclusions of the Economic Policy Institute prove these allegations are false. The Institute discovered that, of the 10 million people profiting from the raise in the minimum wage, 71 percent are adults. Most minimum wage earners provide more than half of their households' incomes. Millions of families across the United States depend on these wage earners for survival. We should do better as a society to ensure that these industrious laborers can enjoy a higher standard of living.

The minimum wage provides a barometer for fairness and economic justice in society. Nations which strive to care for their workers will implement a wage that grants economic security. A person who works full-time deserves to live above the poverty line. America had a proud tradition of providing this security to its working poor, but we have lapsed on this obligation in the past two decades.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) have introduced legislation, entitled "The American Family Fair Minimum Wage Act of 1998," that will increase the minimum wage to $6.65 an hour by 2000 and provide for additional yearly increases to reflect the rate of inflation. This bill is an important step our American society can take to reaffirm our commitment to economic justice and respect for the working poor.

We are in one of the greatest economic booms in our nation's history. Unemployment hovers around a meager 4 percent, while the economy marches forward with robust growth rates. Yet,who is benefiting from this economic revival? Is it the steel worker in Gary, Indiana, struggling to feed his family? Is it the automobile worker in Flint, Michigan, fearful of layoffs despite soaring profits for the automotive industry? This rising tide has not raised all ships. The gulf of wealth between rich and poor in our Union has only grown wider in these healthy economic times. Since businesses show no interest in their employees' well-being, the federal government must intervene to guarantee fairness and justice for those at the base of our economic pyramid, those who sweat and labor to support the foundation of the businesses that smite them with disregard and disrespect.

This decade has been marked by the fusion of corporate behemoths, most recently the Citicorp-Travelers and NationsBank-Bank America mega-mergers. It has been defined by a skyrocketing stock market; the Dow Jones Industrial Average, at 2,500 at the beginning of the decade, has surged past 9,000. It's the best of times for the opulent and the privileged. Why can't it be such for the working class as well?

Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a cosponsor of the American Family Fair Minimum Wage Bill, observed, "It's a simple matter of economic justice in America - if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be paid a fair minimum wage." It is time for us as a nation to answer to our shameful record on economic justice in the past two decades and rectify this sin by clamoring for passage of The American Family Fair Minimum Wage Bill.