Did you know that raising the minimum wage was a demand of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a Dream" speech?
King, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other leaders of the 1963 March on Washington demanded "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."
They didn't dream that four decades later, the value of the minimum wage would go down as the cost of housing, food, health care and other necessities went up.
They didn't dream that four decades later, 36 million Americans would be below the official poverty line -- far below a decent standard of living.
They didn't dream that four decades later, the black poverty rate would still be triple that of whites.
At the time of the march in 1963, the minimum wage was $7.80 an hour, adjusting for inflation in 2004 dollars. Today's minimum wage is far lower -- just $5.15 an hour.
In "Where Do We Go From Here?" King wrote, "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer."
The minimum wage reached its peak value in 1968, the year King was assassinated.
Today's $5.15 minimum wage is 41 percent less than 1968's inflation-adjusted minimum wage of $8.78.
Full-time, year-round minimum wage workers made $18,262 in 1968, adjusting for inflation. Today's full-time minimum wage workers make just $10,712 a year.
The minimum wage sets the wage floor. As the floor sinks, millions of workers find themselves with wages above the minimum, but not above the poverty level.
Business Week observed last year in a cover story on the working poor, "Today more than 28 million people, about a quarter of the workforce between the ages of 18 and 64, earn less than $9.04 an hour, which translates into a full-time salary of $18,800 a year -- the income that marks the federal poverty line for a family of four."
One out of three black workers earns less than $9.04 an hour -- barely above the value of the minimum wage of 1968.
Certainly, King didn't dream that four decades after the March on Washington, the U.S. Conference of Mayors would find in its annual "Hunger and Homelessness Survey" that 17 percent of the homeless were employed, as were 34 percent of adults requesting emergency food assistance.
The last minimum wage increases in 1996-97 were followed by rising incomes and falling poverty and unemployment nationwide. We need another boost to the minimum wage, and the economy.
Most Americans believe a job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it. Most Americans want to raise the minimum wage significantly.
Yet Congress has had seven pay raises since 1997, when the minimum increased to $5.15, while approving none for minimum wage workers. This month, congressional pay rose to $162,100 -- way up from $133,600 in 1997. That cumulative $28,500 congressional pay hike is more than the total earnings of two minimum wage workers.
At the time of the 1963 March on Washington, members of congress earned nine times the pay of minimum wage workers. Now, they earn 15 times as much. To reverse that growing gap, Congress should tie their pay raises to raises in the minimum wage.
Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the March on Washington, has said if King were alive, "he would be in the forefront of reminding the government that its first concern should be the basic needs of its citizens -- not just black Americans but all Americans -- for food, shelter, health care, education, jobs, livable incomes and the opportunity to realize their full potential."
A. Philip Randolph introduced King before the "I have a Dream" speech as "the moral leader of America."
Congress and the White House should stop taking a holiday from King's dream and enact "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living."
Holly Sklar is co-author of "Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us" (www.raisethefloor.org). She can be reached at email@example.com.
© 2005 Holly Sklar