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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT