Three Years of Congressional Inaction on the Minimum Wage

Anniversaries usually become more special with each passing year, but not all: Today marks the third anniversary of the last increase in the federal minimum wage – since July 24, 2009, the federal wage floor has been stuck at $7.25 per hour, or just over $15,000 per year for a full-time worker.

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But it’s potentially misleading to say that the minimum wage has not changed over the past three years, because, in real terms, it’s actually declined: As the price of basic goods like milk and gasoline has continued to rise each year, the real purchasing power of the minimum wage has gradually eroded.

As a result, the real value of the minimum wage has already dropped to $6.77 per hour, a decline of more than 7 percent since 2009.

A stagnant minimum wage is a serious problem for anyone concerned about the rise of economic inequality in the U.S. But there’s an equally vexing problem that lies behind this issue: In many ways, it’s the depth of political inequality in the U.S. that makes addressing the minimum wage so difficult in the first place.

Consider, for example, the uphill battle to raise the minimum wage in New York State this year. The New York Daily News captured Governor Cuomo’s resignation on the prospects of passing a minimum wage increase with the following headline, “Cuomo: Minimum Wage Harder To Get Than Gay Marriage.”

David Sirota at Salon pointed out the absurdity of this headline:

According to…surveys, only 58 percent of New Yorkers support legalizing gay marriage, while a whopping 78 percent support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50. 

Put Cuomo’s declaration next to those numbers, and the revelation emerges: in a political arena dominated by corporate money, the governor is acknowledging that politicians will champion initiatives that don’t challenge corporate power, but will avoid promoting those that do. Not only that, Cuomo is admitting this is the case regardless of public opinion.

Big money has spread through our political system to such a degree that even bi-partisan public support for a particular issue is not sufficient to make it a legislative priority.

And New York is no special case: A national poll from earlier this year revealed that no less than 73 percent of likely voters support raising the minimum wage – including 74 percent of Independents and even 50 percent of Republicans.

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And yet, it’s been three years without any increase in the minimum wage. Given that the largest employers of low-wage workers are hugely profitable corporations – and that our political system favors major contributors over majority opinion – I’m unsure how many more years we’ll have to wait.

There has been some progress as of late: Earlier this year, Senator Harkin proposed raising the minimum wage to $9.80 by 2014, raising the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the full minimum wage, and indexing both to automatically adjust with inflation. Rep. George Miller has announced plans to introduce a stand-alone bill in the House reflecting this same proposal.

And today, thousands of workers in over 50 cities throughout the U.S. are organizing to call on Congress raise the minimum wage. Congress should act on their calls – not just to help ensure that the economy works for everyone, but to confirm that our democracy does as well.

Tell Congress: The 99% Need A Raise >>>

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