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Dobbs: Congress stiffs working Americans

By Lou Dobbs
CNN

Editor's note: Lou Dobbs' commentary appears every Wednesday on CNN.com.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Without much fanfare, the House of Representatives last week voted to give members of Congress yet another pay raise, as it has done almost every year for nearly a decade.

For some reason, our elected officials decided against holding a news conference. Maybe that's because they didn't want to draw attention to the fact that they raise their own salaries almost every year while refusing to raise the pay of our lowest-paid workers.

Corporate America, the Bush administration and the national economic orthodoxy with which they're in league have consistently argued against helping working men and women at the lowest end of the wage scale by raising the minimum wage. Big business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say it will harm the economy and eliminate jobs. As is so frequent with the faith-based economics that grips both political parties in Washington, such concerns have absolutely nothing to do with reality.

For example, it's impossible to deny the national minimum wage of $5.15 is not enough for a family to live above the poverty line. The annual salary for workers earning the national minimum wage still leaves a family of three about $6,000 short of the poverty threshold.

Raising the minimum wage to $7.50 would positively affect the lives of more than 8 million workers, including an estimated 760,000 single mothers and 1.8 million parents with children under 18. But even this 46 percent increase would get them only to the poverty line. Don't you think these families just might need that cost-of-living increase a bit more than our elected officials who are paid nearly $170,000 a year?

With no Congressional action on raising the minimum wage since 1997, inflation has eroded wages. The minimum wage in the 21st century is $2 lower in real dollars than it was four decades ago and now stands at its lowest level since 1955, according to the Economic Policy Institute and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Also, since the last time Congress increased the minimum wage for our lowest-paid workers, buying power has fallen by 25 percent. Yet over that time our elected representatives have given themselves eight pay raises totaling more than 23 percent.

Raising the minimum wage isn't simply about the price of labor. It's also about our respect for labor. One of this country's greatest business innovators, Henry Ford, made history almost a century ago by raising the salaries of his production-line workers far beyond the prevailing wage. Ford not only paid his employees well enough to buy the products they built, but he kept his employees loyal and productive. That's also very good business.

The myth that raising the minimum wage will lead to job cuts is just that: a myth. In fact, research suggests just the opposite. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, since 1998, states with higher minimum wages experienced better job growth than states paying only the federal minimum wage. Among small retail businesses in those higher minimum-wage states, job growth was double the rest of the country.

The House Appropriations Committee has passed a $2.10 increase as part of a spending bill, but the business lobby pressured the House leadership to hold up the measure.

"I think it's disgraceful that we waited nine years to do this," says Rep. David Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin. "We have seen gas prices go up by 140 percent since the minimum wage was increased. We have seen home heating oil go up by 120 percent. We have seen health care go up by almost 45 percent."

This administration, our Republican-led Congress and the dominant corporate interests in this country want cheap labor. And to achieve that goal they're outsourcing middle-class jobs, importing illegal labor and cutting retirement and health-care benefits.

It's time for the federal government to reverse the trend, to at least substantially raise the minimum wage in this country, and by doing so express how much we value all working Americans.

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