Monday, January 02, 2006

Congress's Obstinacy to Minimum Wage Increase Circumvented by States

The New York Times has an article today about how states are jumping in to fill the void of federal action on raising the national minimum wage. 1997 was the last time Congress approved and the President signed a law which increased the minimum wage from $4.75 to $5.15. Why have 9 years gone by without another increase to at the very least account for inflation?
...efforts in Congress to increase the amount have been stymied largely by Republican lawmakers and business groups who argued that a higher minimum wage would drive away jobs.

Certainly the cost-of-living in some states is higher than others, which is why it makes sense for the more expensive states especially to raise the minimum wage. Still, even for those states with a lower cost-of-living and therefore a better argument against raising the minimum wage (and this even varies within the state), according to the Times article, the current minimum wage "falls far short of the income needed to place a family at the federal poverty level." Public opinion polls are also strongly in favor of an increase.

Naturally, conservative opinion is fiercely against it though. The view holds:
Business groups and conservative economists have argued that the minimum wage is an unwarranted government intrusion into the employer-employee relationship and a distortion of the marketplace for labor. An increase in the minimum wage, they say, drives up labor costs across the board and freezes unskilled and first-time workers out of the job market.

The article further points out:
About three-fifths of all workers paid at or below the federal minimum wage worked in bars and restaurants, and many received tips to supplement their basic wages.

But even so, it's not as if those who work in most bars and restaurants make a killing. (I tend to be against the whole tipping thing and in favor of the European-style where tip and tax is already added into the cost of items because it is more convenient and less arbitrary).

Also, the suggestion that the minimum wage increases causes job loss is a mere conjecture:
Advocates of an increase in the minimum wage said that inflation had so eroded the value of the minimum wage in the last nine years that it was worth less today in real terms than at any time since 1955. They also cited studies that found that raising the minimum wage did not cause job loss, as opponents argue. According to these studies, employers can absorb the higher labor costs through efficiencies, less employee turnover and higher productivity.

As an aside, there are many less tangible benefits to employers in having a higher minimum wage, and an employer who is solely focused on cutting costs to make a profit is probably doing himself or herself a disservice.

Furthermore, there are people who are making far less than even the minimum, something that could be remedied with state or federal wage mandates (though probably not wholly ameliorated).
Tim Burga, legislative director for the Ohio A.F.L.-C.I.O., said that 92,000 workers in the state made less than the federal minimum wage, some as little as $2 an hour.

Maybe the best argument against a minimum wage increase is that many minimum wage jobs are held by high school or college students who are still legal dependents. However, many of them are working to supplement their family's earnings or their own education. Claims that job growth will be squelched with an increase have been countered by facts like this:
...despite having one of the highest minimum wages in the country at $7.25 an hour, Oregon had had twice the rate of job growth as the rest of the country.

Finally, the minimum wage is an issue--though economic in nature--that says something about our country and its values. Shouldn't it be a tenet in this country of abundance to ensure that someone who works a job can afford to live a decent life?

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