During the 2008 campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama made a pledge to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour by 2011. Promises like this one inspired a generation of young voters, excited long-neglected progressive voters and gave hope to millions of his supporters across the country.
President Obama ran a campaign of soaring rhetoric and uplifting ideas. Amidst two unpopular wars, a rapidly deteriorating financial crisis and the wildly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, Americans were desperate for a change. He was viewed as a “transformational” candidate, a president who would turn the page on the stagnant politics of Washington.
It is now four years later, and there has been no increase to the minimum wage. There has been no congressional vote, much less a whisper from the White House on the minimum wage.
President Obama understood the importance of this issue in 2008. The merits of raising the minimum wage haven’t changed since then, but his political courage has. The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage has been in decline since the 1960s, losing over 30 percent of its value and leaving hard-working Americans struggling to get by from paycheck to paycheck. At the same time, the cost of living has continued to rise steadily, further eroding the value of a minimum wage. Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation since 1968, today it would be at $10.57 per hour, instead of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25.
Studies show that the minimum wage could help jump-start the economy and increase consumer spending. A 2011 study by the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank found that for every dollar increase to the hourly pay of a minimum wage worker, the result is $2,800 in new consumer spending from that worker’s household over the year. And a 2009 study from the Economic Policy Institute estimated that simply by raising the minimum wage to $9.50 per hour, $60 billion in additional spending would be added to the economy over a two-year period.
Opponents of raising the minimum wage claim that it would increase unemployment. In fact, most studies not funded by front groups show that raising the minimum wage has no or little impact on unemployment. Also, small business has already received 17 tax breaks during the Obama presidency.
The Barack Obama of the 2008 campaign would have stood up against these distortions. Instead, President Barack Obama’s absence of leadership on this issue is shameful. Four separate pieces of legislation have been introduced in the current Congress to raise the minimum wage, by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (Illinois, 2nd District), Representative Al Green (Texas, 9th), Representative Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut, 3rd), and Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa). The Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House has ignored these bills.
If President Obama is deliberately remaining silent on raising the minimum wage because of a political calculation, it is a calculation based on fuzzy math. A recent poll by John Zogby shows that 70 percent of likely voters support raising the minimum wage. Poll after poll has confirmed that result. On top of its popularity, raising the minimum wage could help turn the economy around, and it is an issue that speaks directly to the 30 million workers stranded between the $7.25 and $10 span of wages.
And why not? The U.S. has the lowest minimum wage by far among large Western industrialized countries.
Poorer voters have notoriously low voter turnout rates. They represent a voter bloc that, because of this fact, is usually written off by political consultants and strategists. But has anyone ever stopped to ask why it is that they don’t vote? Could it be that they don’t feel as though the typical slate of politicians and candidates speaks to the issues they care about? They may not have the money to make campaign contributions, but to write them off so easily in a close election is foolish. With a growing number of individuals below the poverty line, even a slight increase in voter turnout from one election year to the next could make a difference.
In 10 swing states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia – more than 6.5 million voting-age individuals are below the federal poverty line. What was President Obama’s combined margin of victory in those 10 states in 2008? Less than 2 million votes. Florida has a total of nearly 1.8 million potential voters below the poverty line. There are 246,000 workers in Florida being paid at or below the minimum wage. What was President Obama’s margin of victory in Florida in 2008? Slightly more than 204,000 votes. Similarly, North Carolina has nearly 1 million potential voters who are below the poverty line. Among North Carolina’s hourly workers, 140,000 are paid at or below the minimum wage. President Obama’s margin of victory in North Carolina in 2008? Less than 14,000 votes.
Both Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, until he waffled earlier this year, have been clearly on the record as backing a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation. What other issue is as popular with voters, speaks directly to such a large bloc of deserving Americans, could benefit the economy, and – simply put – is the right thing to do?