Column: Minimum wage stuck in '50s
NEW YORK -- Are you better off than you were 40 years ago? Not if you're a minimum wage worker. It would take $9.92 today to match the buying power of the minimum wage at its peak in 1968, the year Martin Luther King died fighting for living wages for sanitation workers.
In today's dollars, the 1968 hourly minimum wage adds up to $20,634 a year working full time. The new federal minimum wage of $7.25 comes to just $15,080. That's $ 5,554 in lost wages.
"It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis...getting part-time income," Dr. King told workers in Memphis, Tenn., days before his murder. King said, "We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life."
Imagine what King would say today. The minimum wage is stuck in the 1950s. With the raise, the minimum wage is higher than 1950's inflation-adjusted $6.71, but lower than the 1956 minimum wage of $7.93 in today's dollars. The long-term fall in worker buying power is one reason we are in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The federal minimum wage was not enacted during good times, but during the extraordinarily hard times of the Great Depression. When the minimum wage became law in 1938, one out of five workers was unemployed and job creation was crucial.
President Franklin Roosevelt called the minimum wage "an essential part of economic recovery." Roosevelt said, millions of workers "receive pay so low that they have little buying power. Aside from the undoubted fact that they thereby suffer great human hardship, they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter, to maintain health or to buy their share of manufactured goods." Roosevelt further said, "The increase of national purchasing power [is] an underlying necessity of the day." And so it is today.
Camille Moran, owner of a Louisiana Christmas tree farm and paralegal service, says, "A minimum wage increase could be the most important factor in powering our economy out of the recession."
Consumer spending makes up about 70 percent of our economy. The minimum wage sets the wage floor. We can't build a strong economy on poverty wages. A growing share of workers make too little to buy necessities -- much less afford a middle-class standard of living. Meanwhile a growing share of business revenue has gone to executive pay and profits. In 1968, the richest 1 percent of Americans had 11 percent of national income. By 2006, they had 23 percent -- the highest share since 1928, right before the Great Depression.
We can't build a strong, sustainable economy on a 1950s' wage floor, 1920s' income gaps and ballooning Wall Street bailouts.
U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce CEO Margot Dorfman says, "Now, more than ever, it's imperative employees are paid a fair minimum wage. It is an unsustainable and dangerous downward spiral to push American workers into poverty and expect taxpayers to pick up the bill for the consequences." Dorfman is among 1,000 national business leaders and small business owners supporting the minimum wage increase in a statement at www.businessforafairminimum.org.
"Anyone who thinks the minimum wage shouldn't be raised should try living on it," says Phillip Rubin, CEO of Computer Software for Professionals in Oakland, Calif.
Michael Shuman, public policy director at the fast-growing Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, says, "Raising the minimum wage to $7.25 is an overdue step in providing a decent, fair livelihood to American workers and creating a truly 'living economy.'"
If the minimum wage had stayed above the nearly $10 value it had in 1968, it would have put upward pressure -- rather than downward pressure -- on the average worker wage. The Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign, which I advise, is calling for a minimum wage of $10 in 2010. It's time to break the cycle of too little, too late raises.
"A fair minimum wage protects the middle class and gives entry level workers some economic breathing room," says Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis, Mo. "Rebuilding our economy starts with showing hard-working Americans that their work will be rewarded."
Holly Sklar is author of "Raising the Minimum Wage in Hard Times" (www.letjusticeroll.org) and "Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All of Us."