By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA)—Civil rights groups, labor organizer and their allies are stepping up pressure on Congress to pass legislation raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016.
During a press conference on Capitol Hill last week, Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said that in the 1930s, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt envisioned the idea for a minimum wage, it was about respect for American families, workers and children.
By that measurement, respect for American workers peaked in 1968. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the value of minimum wage is worth 23 percent less than it was nearly 50 years ago.
“If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation that wage would now be over $10 an hour. If the minimum wage had kept pace with the very important principle of worker productivity, that wage would be over $20 an hour. If that wage had kept pace with the growth and the income of the top one percent that wage would be nearly $30 per hour,” said Morial.
Morial announced that National Urban League would accelerate its advocacy in support of an increase in a minimum wage, during the same week of the groups’ 11th annual Legislative Policy Conference.
When Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) joined the press conference, he didn’t mince words.
“The people need a raise,” exclaimed Ellison. “The people got to get paid!”
According to a report by the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Funding, nearly a quarter (23 percent) of front-line fast food workers are black.
“Even at 40 hours a week, however, more than half (52 percent) of front-line fast-food workers’ families participate in public programs,” stated the report.
Billion-dollar retailer Wal-Mart continues to make profits for its shareholders while paying its workers low-wages, pushing some into public assistance programs such as Medicaid.
“We’re sick of subsidizing these big corporations; because they pay our people so little that Uncle Sam has to make it up in food stamps and healthcare,” said Ellison. “Let them pay their own freight.”
On a conference call on the minimum wage coordinated by the AFL-CIO, Elise Gould, director of health policy research at the Economic Policy Institute, said that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 would be quite modest compared to inflation and wage growth and paltry compared to gains in productivity. Gould also sought to dispel the myth that most low-wage workers are young and uneducated.
“The United States low-wage workforce is far more educated than they were 40 years ago, yet their wages do not reflect these changes,” said Gould.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the average age of low-wage workers is 35 and less than 15 percent of low-wage workers are teenagers. Nearly one-third of low-wage workers have some college experience and about 10 percent have earned a four-year degree.
According to the AFL-CIO, “More than 2.2 million single moms would benefit from raising the minimum wage. One out of four of the workers who would benefit—and 31 percent of the women workers who would benefit—are parents with children.”
Women often find work in low-wage industries as child care workers, home health aides, housekeepers and hair stylists.
“Women and women of color who are often single parents and who are often stuck in low-wage jobs are being hurt and that means that their children are being hurt and that is bad for our economic future as well as our social fabric, said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO. “We are short changing our own future when we allow children to grow up in homes of poverty. It’s a disgrace and it’s something that the United States should not tolerate.”
Even though blacks account for 11 percent of the labor force, they more than 14 percent of low-wage workers. Whites account for 56.9 percent of low-wage workers.
The number of black workers affected by an increase in the minimum wage is even higher in some states, including Georgia and Louisiana where black workers account for more than 40 percent of low-wage workers. In Washington, D.C., blacks represent about 54 percent of low-wage workers.
The number of black low-wage workers is much greater than the national average in Mississippi (39.6 percent), South Carolina (37 percent) and Maryland (33 percent). A recent study by the AFL-CIO confirmed that 4,123,000 black workers would benefit if the federal minimum wage were increased to $10.10 per hour.
The growth in productivity coupled with relatively stagnant wages for most workers has contributed to economic inequality in America.
According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, “From 1973 to 2011, productivity increased by more than 80 percent, but the compensation of a typical production/nonsupervisory worker increased by less than 11 percent.”
Black workers also live in poverty at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Black men accounted for 10.5 percent of workers living in poverty in 2011 compared to a 5.6 percent share of white men who lived in poverty. Black females accounted for nearly 16 percent of workers living in poverty in 2011, compared to white women who represent 6.7 percent of workers living in poverty.
Women, especially women of color, who are increasingly becoming the breadwinners for their families will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.
“Our research shows that 55 percent of those helped by a minimum wage increase affected are women and 25 percent would be women of color,” said Gould.
Lee said that the workers and employers will benefit from raising the minimum wage, because the increase is targeted at people living on the edge, it doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, and employers will save money by reducing turnover.
“You can tell a lot about a society by its policy and how it treats the least of these,” said Nolan Rollins, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles affiliate of the National Urban League. “So, for an organization like ours that serves over two million people every year it becomes important for our legislators, not just to see us in our districts, but also here on Capitol Hill, really advocating for things that are going to make America better for the urban areas, for African Americans and other underserved populations.”
Rollins said that the Urban League affiliates wanted to bring their voices to Capitol Hill to create a real opportunity to talk about a strategic way to strengthen families.
Representatives from more than 90 Urban League affiliates visited members of Congress last week during their annual policy legislative conference to discuss a number of challenges affecting blacks and other underserved populations including high unemployment and discrimination in the criminal justice system housing and education.
Rollins said that opponents of a minimum wage increase were using scare tactics when they quickly pointed to a recent report by Congressional Budget Office that said that up to 500,000 jobs may be lost, while ignoring that the CBO also reported that nearly 17 million workers would directly benefit from raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Many economists agree that the actual effect of raising the minimum wage would be minimal or insignificant.
As Republicans propose deeper cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, at a time when the aid is needed the most, a report by the Center for American Progress found that a higher minimum wage would help to reduce spending on public assistance programs. The Center for American Progress found that the current minimum wage bill working its way through Congress would reduce SNAP enrollment by 3.3 million to 3.8 million and cut spending on food stamps by $46 billion over 10 years.
“If you raise the minimum wage you’re going to raise the incomes for families that are struggling and for families that are trying to do better in their communities,” said Rollins. “But the question is, do we have the political will in Washington, D.C. to do that.”