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Long Overdue Minimum Wage Increase Gives U.S. Workers Much-Needed Boost
Monday, July 23, 2007
The federal minimum wage increase on July 24, 2007 marks the end of the longest period without a raise since the minimum wage was enacted in 1938. This is the first increase in the minimum wage in ten years.
The minimum wage will increase in three steps, from $5.15 per hour to $5.85 on July 24, 2007, to $6.55 one year later, and to $7.25 in 2009. This year's raise translates to $0.70 per hour, or $28.00 a week. That's enough for full-time workers to take their family to the movies — and maybe share popcorn.
Okay, maybe not popcorn. It's more like peanuts.
While our nation's poorest workers will finally be getting a much-needed boost to help pay for necessities like rent, food, health care, and child care, the minimum wage has been so eroded by inflation that even with the new raises, minimum wage workers will have less buying power than minimum wage workers had half a century ago.
Since it was last raised in 1997, the minimum wage has fallen 20 percent, adjusted for inflation, while domestic corporate profits are up 74 percent, retail profits are up 55 percent, and business has reaped $312 billion in tax breaks.
Even after rising to $7.25 in 2009, the minimum wage will still be lower than it was in 1956, when it was $7.65 in today's dollars. The first raise to $5.85 translates to an annual income of $12,168. That's nearly $1,500 more than today's inadequate minimum wage of $10,712 for full-time work. But it's still below the 2007 Health and Human Services poverty guideline of $13,690 for a two-person family — and far below any realistic poverty measure.
A growing movement
What the federal wage raise really signals is the growing power of the living wage movement, whose momentum has compelled the federal government to act for the first time in ages. Currently 32 states have raised their statewide minimum wage above the federal level.
In recent years, numerous bipartisan polls have shown growing public support — over 80 percent of all people in the United States — for a wage increase. UUSC colleague organization Let Justice Roll is the faith- and community-based engine that helped raise the minimum wage in 13 states during 2006 and pushed federal minimum wage legislation towards eventual passage the following year.
Let Justice Roll is now building on this record of achievement to mobilize a movement strong enough to ensure a living wage for all workers across the United States.
As a nonpartisan coalition of more than 90 faith, community, labor, and business organizations dedicated to the principle that "a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it," Let Justice Roll will continue its work in the states and at the federal level to ensure that everyone who works for a living can earn a living wage.
Current active campaigns
Specifically, while celebrating victories this month in Tennessee, Indiana, and New Hampshire, Let Justice Roll is also supporting active living wage campaigns in Kansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, and Cleveland, Ohio.
Through the Wage Justice initiative, UUSC is working with Let Justice Roll to engage faith-based activists in grassroots campaigns, starting with Unitarian Universalists in Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
Even when the federal minimum wage rises, the Georgia minimum wage will remain at $5.15 because the legislature this year rejected an effort to change it. That means some workers in Georgia — those not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act — will not see an increase. Two pending bills in the Georgia legislature seek to push that state's minimum wage up to $7.25 by 2008, so that most hourly employees in the state, including those in home health, certain areas of farm and fishing and seasonal recreation, will benefit. The bills also create a trigger that would automatically adjust the minimum wage to keep up with increases in the cost of living. Passing these bills is a priority of the Georgia Living Wage Coalition, and UUSC and Let Justice Roll are working to support this work of by engaging more faith-based activists in the campaign.
At the rate of $2.65 per hour, Kansas is currently the only state in the nation with a minimum wage set below the federal level (though five states in the deep South have no minimum wage at all). Let Justice Roll has joined forces with organizers David Smith and Heidi Zeller of the Kansas Action Network to build three city-wide campaigns to raise awareness and raise the wage.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 "Oklahoma... had the highest proportion of hourly-paid workers earning at or below $5.15 (at about 4 percent)." In coordination with Let Justice Roll organizer Karen Spradlin, UUSC is sponsoring public forums and strategy sessions to engage UUs and other faith-based activists into the growing movement.
Making a difference for families
Together, our work is making a difference for millions of people. Last year's statewide wage victories will return billions to the 2007 paychecks of low-wage workers — each dollar an hour more means about $2,000 a year for workers struggling to support themselves and their families to meet basic needs such as clothing, shelter, health care, or food. Additionally, the movement for just wages is lifting up public awareness about poverty and wage inequality as the moral economic issue of our time.
Raising the minimum wage above poverty level is perhaps the most effective instrument for combating poverty and supporting the human rights of children, women, and people of color in the United States.
No other single issue or movement can so directly improve the lives of the working poor in this country. Working across divides and building momentum in a diverse faith-labor-community coalition are essential to moving these gains forward. Engaging faith-based and business support is vital — and Let Justice Roll along with UU allies and UUSC are at the forefront of building that support.