Why Haven’t We Raised the Minimum Wage Yet?

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Victoria Weber, Reporter

It’s been over a decade since the minimum wage was last raised to 7 dollars and 25 cents an hour. In combination with the rise of inflation, as well as a global health and economic crisis, the need for an increase is greater than ever. According to CBS News, the cost of living has increased by 20% since the 2009 minimum wage hike. In order to rent a one bedroom apartment, a person must earn on average 20 dollars an hour, almost 3 times the federal minimum wage, and that’s without taking into account other necessary costs, such as food, transportation, emergency funds, savings, education, and the many other costs of living. All of these additional expenses would warrant an even higher raise in the bare minimum an employer must pay, potentially justifying an hourly wage closer to almost twice the increase Congress came close to instituting. According to CNBC, “The Congressional Budget Office finds that the pay hike would benefit 27 million Americans,” which begs the question: why haven’t we raised the minimum wage yet?

During his campaign, Biden was an advocate for raising the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. Though not enough to adequately compensate workers, more than doubling the current minimum wage would have been a massive improvement. Biden very nearly succeeded in achieving this via the most recent stimulus bill approved by Congress, however, before passing the bill, Republicans blocked adding a clause that would bump the minimum wage. Why? They argued it would hurt small businesses. Despite this, according to Hart Research Associates, about 62% of Americans support raising the minimum wage. Here are common arguments that have been debunked:

  1. “A $15 federal minimum wage would be devastating for our hardest-hit small businesses at a time when they can least afford it.” Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, made this argument whilst debating over the minimum wage raise. What this argument fails to take into account, however, is that the minimum wage differs across states, and the District of Columbia currently has both small businesses and a fifteen dollar minimum wage. While small businesses are something to encourage, employees of these businesses are just that: employees, not volunteers. The survival of one cannot negate the survival of the other, and if a business cannot afford to pay its employees what they are owed, it’s not a business, it’s a company profiting off the desperation of America’s most vulnerable populations: the women and people of color who dominate the most underpaid jobs in the United States. Furthermore, in the case of California, small businesses were given the time to gradually adjust the wages of their employees in the span of five years to accommodate California’s minimum wage hike to thirteen dollars an hour.
  2. “Raising the minimum wage would lead to companies automating jobs instead of hiring workers.” Companies are already inclined to cut jobs and replace them with cheaper machinery, no matter the minimum wage. A machine that can work for free is still leagues cheaper than someone who is required to receive 7 dollars and 25 cent an hour.
  3. “Raising the minimum wage would hurt the federal budget.” According to Business Insider, “Many millions of workers in the United States are paid so little that they need the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps, to get enough food on the table to survive. Moving the federal minimum wage to $15 would annually save somewhere between $3.3 and $5.4 billion in SNAP funds alone.” Not only would a higher minimum wage benefit those on food stamps, but an increase in the minimum wage would lead to a larger amount of money going to taxes, which would benefit governments on a state and federal level. This could allow the government to address issues from the national debt to Social Security.
  4. “Raising the minimum wage would make goods and services more expensive.” When Seattle raised its minimum wage, students at the University of Washington monitored grocery prices before and after the increase, and concluded that no change in prices occurred. Unsurprisingly, an expansion in the number of people who are able to afford a product is good for business. 
  5. “Companies will relocate to countries where it’s cheaper to pay employees. ” There are bordering states with lower minimum wages that disprove this, such as New York’s 12 dollars and 50 cents an hour in comparison to Pennsylvania’s 7 dollars and 25 cents, but in any case, we cannot value the location of companies over American lives. Forcing workers to stare down poverty in order to preserve the false notion that companies will move is absurd. 

Ultimately, mandating that businesses pay employees a minimum wage is up to state and federal legislators. Now that Congress has tossed out the opportunity to instate a hike, it’s unlikely that the U.S. will see another attempt to do so on a federal level with Congress’ current party numbers. However, the pressing need for this to happen is only going to present itself more and more in our daily lives. To deny our nation’s essential workers a living wage is to send the harrowing message: you do not deserve to live. The disagreement of legislators – politicians that haven’t worked for minimum wage in decades and have lived lavishly on the hundreds of thousands of dollars their salary provides – only stalls Americans’ release from the shackles of poverty.

We’re already seeing the consequences of parsimonious payouts to workers: birth rates are declining among millennials and older members of Gen-Z, and many will not be able to afford the homes their parents could, in addition to other traditional rites of adulthood. If there’s a generation most unlikely to retire, we’re looking at the majority of today’s workforce. If we are to wonder why the birth rate has fallen to a 35 year low, we have to look to the fact that the majority of today’s young adults struggle to afford themselves, much less children. It’s not that for almost four decades adults have trended towards opting out of children by their own choice, it’s that 35 years ago we began the cycle of failing two entire generations and now we’re dealing with the fallout.

Refusing to provide an adequate wage for those unable to stay home spits in the face of the flattering social media shoutouts and 7 p.m. applause for essential workers. The empty words we freely hand out to those who risk their lives to maintain grocery stores and provide critical medical care, among endless other jobs, both which keep the world running and are largely occupied by women and people of color, mean nothing if we cannot give them what has been long overdue.