In his State-of-the-Union Address President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9.00 per hour and indexing it to inflation. He said a family of four with two children still lives below the poverty line when one parent works full-time at minimum wage. The proposed increase would lift them out of poverty, he said.
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What a welcome suprise! Virtually no attention was given to the working poor in the last election. In the past decade real wages rapidly declined for the working poor, driving ever more citizens into the grip of intractable poverty.
When a person works full-time for a profitable company their compensation should enable them to care for their family. When this isn’t the case, they must rely on taxpayer-subsidized housing, food stamps, medical care, daycare, or other supportive services. This takes a toll. It can erode a person’s dignity and self-worth. It can foster a sense of inadequacy or self-loathing.
On a social level the working poor are often labeled and marginalized. They are deemed to be less worthy. They are less likely to be promoted or rehired after a layoff. Any economic hardship at all can lock them into a cycle of poverty where their hope for a better life evaporates with each passing year. Escaping poverty in America today is the exception, not the rule.
Many wealthy companies are just as dependent on government subsidies for cheap labor. Without taxpayer assistance for their workers these companies would have to pay a living wage in order to maintain a stable workforce.
And what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t adequate compensation be part of the cost of doing business? Why should business owners be allowed to pad their profits by cutting labor costs at taxpayer expense?
We can expect the pro-business lobby to oppose an increase in low-wage pay while calling for more spending cuts and lower business taxes. Austerity can’t create more jobs and spending cuts will never result in more pay for low-wage earners. Only an increase in the minimum wage or a living-wage law can do that.
Pro-business economists will claim that a higher minimum wage will increase unemployment and hamstring businesses, especially small businesses. Much evidence suggests the opposite. Higher minimum wages have a simulative effect on the economy. The extra $1.75 per hour will be spent immediately, boosting business profits and sparking more demand.
The pro-business lobby will claim the proposed increase is excessive, but here the facts are against them. Even President Obama got this wrong. The poverty wage for a family of four is current $10.60 per hour. If passed, President Obama’s proposal would still means a minimum-wage worker would have to work overtime, take another part-time job, or have their spouse work part-time to reach the poverty line.
And what does it really mean to be at the poverty line? Does this make a family economically self-sufficient?
No, it does not. A living wage to lift a family of four above the need for taxpayer subsidies is considerably higher. In Wyoming, for example, a living wage for this family is $16.93 per hour. In Virginia it is $20.88 per hour, and in California it is $22.15 per hour. These figures are not government artifacts. They are actual costs based on local free-market economies.
While business owners and corporations may squeal at the size of the proposed increase in the minimum wage, they would still benefit greatly from taxpayer subsidies for their low-wage employees. Raising the minimum wage shifts some of the burden of caring for employees to the employers, but not much. It still doesn’t hold wealthy corporations responsible for their low-wage workers or for the harm that poverty wages inflict on their families.