Minimum Wage Debate Heats Up

Greg Jacobs |
Encore: March 19, 2013

The debate over whether or not to raise the federal minimum wage is heating up around the country.

This week on MetroFocus, Rick Karr talks to Linda Archer, a sixty-year-old, low-wage worker who lives in the Bronx. Archer lives in her elderly mother’s apartment. Two or three days a week she heads to a McDonald’s in Midtown Manhattan for a job that pays eight dollars and five cents an hour — eighty cents more than the minimum wage at the time of filming.

For another perspective, Karr interviews Heather Briccetti, President of the Business Council of New York State. The group represents firms with a million and a half employees statewide and opposes raising the minimum wage because it would increase the cost of a full-time minimum wage employee by 24%.

“What it might mean is that they don’t create new jobs or it might mean that they cut hours for the lowest-wage workers,” says Briccetti. “Or it could translate into higher costs for the consumer.”

MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman also spoke with Stephanie Luce, Associate Professor of Labor Studies at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education. She’s author of the book, “Fighting for a Living Wage” and a leading authority on living wage campaigns.

Before earning her PhD in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Luce worked as an economist for the U.S Department of Labor, and for a Congressional Commission on Agricultural Workers. She has also worked as a researcher for the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and the Political Economy Research Institute.

“Many of us think that teenagers are the main minimum wage earners,” Luce told Pi Roman. “But today when you look at the median low wage worker, they’re actually thirty-five years old, they’re working full-time, and they’re contributing about half of their family’s income.”

In “Fighting for a Living Wage,” Luce examines numerous living wage campaigns, searching for the reason behind their success or failure. In the book, Luce argues that, even in the face of opposition from the government, the public can still play a major role in the implementation of living wage policies, and in ensuring that these policies become fully realized.

Today, the federal government is gesturing in that direction. On February 12, 2013, President Obama declared in his State of the Union Address that “in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty”–effectively calling for an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current level, $7.25, to $9.

Since that speech, there has been a wave of mixed response across the country–antagonists and protagonists in a battle over how much U.S. workers should be paid. The public appears united in support of Obama’s proposal – 71% of the population is in favor of the bump to $9, according to a Pew Research Center poll, while politicians, and economists, to a lesser extent, remain divided.

Meanwhile, a deal appears imminent in New York State for a three year plan to spike the minimum wage to $9 by the end of 2015. Government officials and lawmakers are still hashing out that deal even though the state’s budget has yet to be finalized. The emerging agreement calls for an increase from the current $7.25 to $8 by next January, and $8.75 at the beginning of 2015.

But what would raising the minimum wage actually mean for New York and the wider economy? Is this the most effective way to lift people out of poverty, or is a synthetic hike more likely to stunt job growth and eventually do more economic damage than good? Such questions continue to energize the debate.

In her interview with Pi Roman, Luce said there were a number of things that officials should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to support the raise.

“I think that they should consider that the last thirty years policy of keeping wages low hasn’t worked for generating jobs or wealth for the bottom half of our economy,” Luce said. “I think they need to think about how we get money into those people that will spend it, how we decrease debt among the low wage earners, and how we raise the floor across the board for the entire economy.”


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