Skip to main content

$7.25 an hour is not a living wage

By Richard Trumka and Christine Owens
updated 10:41 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
The American dream of just rewards for hard work has been fading fast, according to Richard Trumka and Christine Owens.
The American dream of just rewards for hard work has been fading fast, according to Richard Trumka and Christine Owens.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writers: Middle-class incomes have been fast losing ground for more than a decade
  • They say hard work no longer brings security and pensions, let alone a living wage
  • They urge minimum wage be raised; its erosion lowers pay and working standards for all
  • Writers: Six in 10 jobs expected to be added over next decade are in low-wage fields

Editor's note: Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO. Christine Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for lower-wage workers.

(CNN) -- For the first time since the Great Depression, the U.S. Census Bureau tells us, middle-class family incomes have lost ground for more than a decade.

The sad truth is that the rewards for productivity and hard work such as health care coverage, retirement security, opportunity -- rewards that used to make America's workers "middle class" -- are on the rocks.

All the wage increases over the past 15 years have gone to the wealthiest 10%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. All of them. And almost all, 95%, of the income gains from 2009 to 2012, the first three years of recovery from the Great Recession, went to the very richest 1%.

Something else has happened, too. The bottom has fallen out of America's wage floor. And the erosion of the minimum wage has lowered pay and working standards for all of us.

Richard Trumka
Richard Trumka
Christine Owens
Christine Owens

An increase in the minimum wage -- which hasn't risen since 2009 -- is long overdue. If the minimum wage had just kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be $10.77 an hour today instead of $7.25. For tipped workers, the rate's been stuck at a scandalous $2.13 for 20 years.

Congress is considering a proposal, called the Fair Minimum Wage Act, from Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. George Miller of California, supported by President Barack Obama. The act would raise the minimum wage over two years to $10.10 an hour and let it grow with inflation.

The Senate is expected to consider the proposal the week after Thanksgiving.

If the minimum wage had kept up with the growth of workers' productivity, it would be $18.67. And if it had matched the wage growth of the wealthiest 1%, it would be more than $28.

The share of workers in "good jobs" -- paying more than $37,000 a year and providing health care and retirement benefits -- has fallen, even though workers' average age and education level have grown. And today, most job growth -- and six in 10 jobs expected to be added over the next decade -- are in low-wage fields.

A raise in the minimum wage would give 30 million workers a little more money to pay for rent, food and other needs. But from other quarters, a different suggestion is on the table.

Let's not allow America's lowest-wage workers to keep on falling further behind.
Richard Trumka and Christine Owens

Publishing executive Steve Forbes, in a column appearing in the November 18 print edition of Forbes magazine, recommends that congressional Republicans go on offense about the minimum wage. He casts the issue as a partisan attempt to "put the GOP in the worst possible light" and advises a spin campaign to defeat a minimum wage increase.

Fortunately for America's working people, the public has a less cynical view.

A recent national survey conducted for the National Employment Law Project by Hart Research Associates finds that 80% of the public -- including 62% of Republicans -- support a minimum wage increase. Just 25% think that raising America's wage floor would cost jobs, a view that's also falling out of favor with economists. Raising the minimum wage does not result in job losses, respected academic research shows, even during bad economic times.

Ironically, Forbes' own magazine in July interviewed Carman Iverson, a 28-year-old minimum-wage McDonald's worker in Kansas City, Missouri, who has four children. The article detailed the utter impossibility of making ends meet on the wage, especially in an industry that limits workers' hours:

Iverson said she started working in 2012 at $7.25 an hour, and makes $7.35 an hour now after Missouri adjusted the minimum wage. She makes between $400 and $600 a month. Her rent is $650 a month.

When asked how she could pay her rent on those wages, she said she had a landlord who works with her. "I'm kind of on my last little leg, because I've been late on rent. I'm actually behind three months in rent.

"Sometimes I can pay it, sometimes I can't. I get paid twice a month, and both checks go to rent and the rest of it goes to utilities to the point where I don't have any money left to buy anything for my kids -- to buy them clothes, shoes or anything they need."

She said she manages to feed her four children on $543 worth of food stamps a month.

There's a lot Congress could do for Iverson and other low-wage workers to stop the erosion of wages and working standards for America's hard-working families -- from ending the job-killing budget cuts of the sequester to investing in the creation of good jobs.

But one choice is clear and easy and can make a difference right now: Raise the minimum wage, including the outrageous rate for tipped workers, and index it to inflation. Let's not allow America's lowest-wage workers to keep on falling further behind.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT