While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pursues his plan to push millions of Americans off health insurance, he might want to pause and take a quick trip home to Kentucky. There, he would find that many of the constituents from whom he intends to strip away healthcare are also struggling to survive on the same poverty-level minimum wage they made eight years ago.
Kentucky, like 20 other states, follows the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. Kentucky’s Republican governor and legislature refuse to raise the state rate. And Sen. McConnell isn’t alone, of course. Plenty of congressional Republicans bent on repealing the Affordable Care Act hail from the states with the lowest minimum wages in the country.
It’s been 10 years since Congress last enacted legislation to raise the federal minimum wage and eight years since the last federal increase, to $7.25 an hour, took effect. In that time, thanks largely to the worker-driven “Fight for $15” movement and grassroots-driven ballot measures, dozens of states and cities have enacted minimum wages higher than the federal minimum. Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C. now have minimum wages above the paltry federal $7.25. Most recently, the city of Minneapolis passed a $15 minimum wage.
But in many states, like Missouri, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey, the state minimum wage is barely higher than the federal level. Worse still, 21 states, including Sen. McConnell’s bluegrass state, have minimum wages still locked at $7.25. In the states with the lowest minimum wages, the chances of state or local action to raise wages any time soon are slim to none. The dominating influence of business lobbyists over Republican lawmakers has effectively blocked efforts to raise the minimum wage in dozens of statehouses.
And 17 of the 21 states with a minimum wage stuck at $7.25 have taken their opposition to raising wages a step further — with preemption laws that block cities and counties from enacting local rates higher than the state level. This includes Kentucky, where, as soon as Republicans captured the state legislature and governor’s mansion last November, one of their first orders of business was to roll back the city of Louisville’s modest increase to $10 an hour.
Given this landscape, there is no substitute for congressional action, after eight long years of inaction, to substantially raise the federal minimum wage. The Raise the Wage Act of 2017, introduced by House and Senate Democrats in May, would finally bring the national wage floor for America’s workers closer to a level that people can live on.
If enacted, the bill would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024, ultimately lifting pay for 41 million workers across the country. Half of the workers who would see pay raises are in the 21 states tied to the $7.25 federal minimum. Fully eight in 10 workers whose hourly pay would get a real boost are in the 34 states with minimum wages of less than $9 an hour. The vast majority of those states voted to put Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House last November.
With workers in every corner of the country falling behind, and so many state governments refusing to act, it’s time for us to come together to lift our national wage floor and create an economy that doesn’t condemn our lowest-paid workers to live in poverty. A national solution to the minimum wage is necessary both as a response to the gridlock at the state level and because workers everywhere in America will soon need $15 an hour just to afford the basics — and many already do.
Cost of living data show that by 2024, when the Raise the Wage Act of 2017 would be fully phased in, a single worker without children, living anywhere in the United States, will need at least $15 an hour just to cover basic living expenses. Workers with children and those in high-cost states like New York and California will need even more.
With a minimum wage that condemns full-time workers to poverty, it is easy to see why most Americans support raising the minimum wage. What’s harder to grasp is why anyone in Congress would oppose raising it. The only seemingly reasonable argument against raising the minimum wage — that it leads to job loss — has proven to be a myth. State-of-the-art research examining the 137 most recent U.S. state minimum wage increases finds they have boosted pay without slowing job growth — confirming the findings of the bulk of modern minimum wage research.
Not only would raising the federal minimum raise living standards for millions of working families, including millions of children, it would also pump money into the national and local economies, putting much-needed dollars into the pockets of working men and women who will spend that money and support businesses in their communities.
Unfortunately, Republicans in Congress seem unconcerned with bringing relief to working families. And that’s truly a shame, because if Sen. McConnell and his colleagues put half as much effort into raising pay for America’s workers as they have into decimating healthcare coverage, America would be a far fairer, healthier and stronger nation.
Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an organization that advocates for policies to create good jobs, expand access to work, and strengthen protections for workers. She previously served as director of public policy at the AFL-CIO.
This op-ed was originally published in The Hill’s Congress Blog.