A values movement is on the rise across the nation in red states and blue, from Arizona to Ohio, Arkansas to Pennsylvania. It's pulling Americans together to raise the minimum wage—instead of pushing us apart.
The minimum wage is a bedrock moral value. The minimum wage is where society draws the line: This low and no lower.
Our bottom line is this: A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.
That's the winning message of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign , a fast-growing nonpartisan program of 70 faith, labor and community organizations working to raise the minimum wage at the federal and state level.
Last month, Arkansas became the first state in the South whose legislature has voted to increase the state minimum wage above the federal level of $5.15—an unconscionable $10,712 a year for full-time work. The increase came just four months after the Let Justice Roll affiliate, Give Arkansas A Raise Now , began a campaign to raise the minimum wage through an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution. As Rev. Steve Copley said at the recent Let Justice Roll national meeting, the campaign effectively brought home this point: "Everyday, thousands of Arkansans get up, go to work—and still can't provide a decent livelihood for themselves and their families."
Arkansans think that is wrong, as do most Americans. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reports, "Raising the minimum wage has broad public backing that crosses all social, regional and political categories."
Let Justice Roll's success is rooted in its appeal to people to see a decent minimum wage as a moral value as well as an economic value. We argue it is immoral that workers who care for children, the ill and the elderly struggle to care for their own families. It is immoral that the minimum wage keeps people in poverty instead of out of poverty.
The Golden Rule—the ethic of reciprocity—is the most universal moral value: Do to others what you would have them do to you.
Violating the Golden Rule, CEO pay has risen astronomically, while a growing number of workers can't make ends meet on salaries above the minimum wage, much less at $10,712 a year. Violating the Golden Rule, Congress has taken eight pay raises since 1997, bringing their pay to $165,200, while giving none to minimum wage workers who make just $10,712 a year.
Clearly, the minimum wage has become a poverty wage rather than an anti-poverty wage. The federal minimum wage buys less today than it did when Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton opened his first Walton's 5-and-10 in Bentonville, Arkansas in 1951. Adjusted for inflation, today's minimum wage is $4 an hour less than it was in 1968. It takes nearly two workers earning the federal minimum wage to make what one worker made four decades ago.
When the minimum wage is stuck in quicksand, it drags down wages for workers up the pay scale as well. Between 1968 and 2005, worker productivity rose 111 percent, but the average hourly wage fell 5 percent, adjusted for inflation—and the minimum wage fell 43 percent. Workers are not getting their fair share of rising productivity. This discrepancy underscores how our economy is not working for working people.
As the federal minimum wage falls further and further behind the cost of living, more states are raising their state minimums above $5.15. Counting Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia, 21 states and the District of Columbia now have or will soon have higher minimum wages. Six states and the District of Columbia currently have a minimum wage at or above $7, led by Washington at $7.63, Oregon at $7.50 and Connecticut at $7.40.
Contrary to myth, raising the minimum wage helps business and boosts the economy. As Dan Gardner, commissioner of Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries, puts it: "Overall most low-wage workers pump every dollar of their paychecks directly into the local economy by spending their money in their neighborhood stores, local pharmacies, and corner markets. When the minimum wage increases, local economies benefit from the increased purchasing power."
Studies by the Fiscal Policy Institute and others show that states with minimum wages above the federal level have had better employment trends, including faster small business and retail job growth. A new report by the Center for American Progress and Policy Matters Ohio shows that the number of small businesses grew more in states with higher minimum wages and jobs in small retail businesses grew three times faster in higher wage states.
State minimum wage raises are putting thousands of dollars more into the hands of those for whom every extra dollar counts in the struggle to pay rent, health care and other necessities. Let's build on these victories in the states, raise the federal minimum wage, and make 2006 the turning point to a living wage for all workers—whatever their state, whatever their job.
Building on success in Arkansas, Michigan and West Virginia, where efforts continue to expand minimum wage coverage, Let Justice Roll is organizing in a growing number of states. These include ballot initiative states such as Arizona, Missouri, Montana and Ohio as well as North Carolina, Pennsylvania and other states with minimum wage legislation. In Ohio, for example, Let Justice Roll sponsored more than 60 Living Wage Days worship services and events over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend—as well as hundreds more around the nation.
In Dr. King's words, "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American (worker) whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer."
Raising the minimum wage is a vital step in repairing our shredded social contract and strengthening our shaky economy from the bottom up. Raising the minimum wage is an economic imperative for the enduring strength of our workforce, businesses and communities. Raising the minimum wage is a moral imperative for the very soul of our nation.
Rev. Paul Sherry is the coordinator of the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign and Holly Sklar is on the steering committee. They are co-authors of A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future. Sherry is also the coordinator of the Anti-Poverty Program of the National Council of Churches. Sklar's books include A Just Minimum Wage: Good for Workers, Business and Our Future and Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All Of Us. Email Holly and Paul at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
© 2006 Holly Sklar and Paul Sherry