Editor’s Note: Chris Lu served as deputy secretary of Labor during the Obama administration. He is a board member of the American Sustainable Business Council and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
On Sunday, the United States will mark an unfortunate milestone: It will be 3,614 days since the federal minimum wage was last raised in July 2009. This will be the longest period of time between federal minimum wage increases in the nation’s history.
Despite a tight labor market, employee salaries aren’t rising fast enough to make up for years of wage stagnation. That’s why far too many Americans feel like they’re treading water. Their paychecks are unchanged, while everyday expenses like housing, health care and gas have gone up.
One proven way to give a pay raise to millions of Americans is to increase the federal minimum wage. This has happened almost two dozen times over the past 80 years under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Left unadjusted for 10 years, the current minimum wage of $7.25-an-hour has 35% less buying power than when the wage floor was $1.60 in 1969. Today, a person working full time on minimum wage can’t even afford the basics. Despite a strong economy, 40% of Americans can’t come up with $400 for an unexpected emergency. And there’s no place in the United States where someone can afford a one-bedroom apartment on a $7.25 an hour wage and 40-hour workweek.
To correct this inequity, congressional Democrats have proposed raising the minimum wage gradually to $15 an hour by 2024.
One argument often used against raising the minimum wage is that it would only affect teenagers working part time at entry-level jobs. In fact, a $15 minimum would benefit nearly 24 million full-time workers, including over 11 million parents, about half of whom are single parents. The average age of impacted workers would be 35 years old, with a higher percentage of workers ages 55 and older receiving a raise than teenagers.
Another argument often used against a minimum wage increase is that it would dampen job growth. This age-old canard has been disproven time and time again, with recent data showing that states that raised their minimum wage between 2013 and 2017 had higher job growth than states that didn’t.
Traditionally, businesses and workers have been pitted against each other in the minimum wage debate. This dynamic has shifted considerably over the past year, with major companies like Amazon, McDonald’s and Walmart announcing their support for raising the federal wage floor.
But it’s not just large companies that are on board with a wage hike. More than 800 companies, most of which are small businesses, have joined Business for a Fair Minimum Wage in supporting a raise to $15 by 2024.
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During my own travels around the country as the deputy secretary of Labor during the Obama Administration, I met with owners of both large and small businesses who explained that higher wages improve employee recruitment and retention, productivity and customer service. Higher pay also means more spending money for employees, which boosts the local economy.
Despite business and public support for increasing the minimum wage, the Trump administration’s top economic adviser has said that even the concept of a federal minimum wage is a “terrible idea,” as are state and local minimums. It’s not surprising that the White House has taken a different tack for raising wages: tax cuts. During the debate on the 2017 tax legislation, President Trump famously bragged that tax cuts would raise worker salaries by $4,000.
As is the case so often with trickle-down claims, the reality has been much different. Only 4.3% of workers received a one-time bonus or pay raise after the tax cut. In fact, corporations spent 153 times as much on stock buybacks — which gooses executive pay — as they did on their employee bonuses and wage hikes.
To be sure, a higher minimum wage by itself won’t solve the problem of widening income inequality. Much more needs to be done to make health care, education and housing more affordable. However, over the past century, we’ve seen how strong economic growth can co-exist well with gradually increasing wage floors. After 10 years, it’s time to give millions of American workers the pay raise they deserve.