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Momentum Builds Across States for Raising Minimum Wage

January has seen the minimum wage emerge as a major issue in 2012 policy debates, with a virtual consensus for raising the wage emerging among all but the extreme conservative fringe. Presidential candidate Newton Gingrich has inflamed many by arguing that child labor laws should be repealed, and urging a dystopian proposal that poor children be put to work cleaning their schools in place of janitors. But in response, prominent conservatives from former Massachusetts Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have come forward urging just the opposite – that the minimum wage be raised automatically every year.  A contributor to Fortune Magazine notes that these and other conservatives are responding to the deep resonance of the issue with voters and the Occupy protests’ elevation of inequality in the public debate, making wage disparity “a fixture in the public dialogue.” State legislators championing minimum wage increases are also playing a pivotal role in driving the salience of inequality and economic security issues on the national stage.

Dubbed “Governor 1%” by Occupy protesters last fall, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently announced 2012 policy agenda offers little to the struggling 99%, as commentators have noted. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, anticipating as much, held a press conference in advance of the governor’s State of the State speech announcing his support for raising the state’s minimum wage. Legislative leaders in other states have also proposed raising their minimum wages as key legislative priorities in just-opened sessions, from New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and Connecticut House Speaker Chris Donovan, to Delaware Senator Robert Marshall and Hawaii Representative Roy Takumi. Illinois and Massachusetts continue to set the standard for states addressing historic levels of inequality, with legislators in both states advancing bills to restore the minimum wage to its peak value of $10/hour.

Editorial pages and commentators have followed state governments’ lead, with many urging state and federal wage increases to provide some relief to low-wage workers and boost state economies. The New York Times kicked off the new year with an editorial lauding the cities and states that announced automatic wage increases for 2012, and calling on the federal government to keep President Obama’s 2008 pledge to restore the minimum wage to $9.50/hour. San Francisco made history in January when it announced the nation’s first-ever wage rate over $10, and Washington stayed atop the states with an automatic increase to $9.04. Other states implementing automatic increases in their minimum wage rates this year include Arizona, Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, and Vermont. Editorial pages in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie has also indicated openness to raising the wage, have come forward and supported Speaker Sheila Oliver’s call for a substantial increase, as well as other targeted income supports for low-wage workers like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

While conservative business groups have wasted no time “crying wolf” over the tragedies they promise will ensue from boosting the minimum wage, much of the media coverage in states that have done so this year has featured supportive comments by small business owners who see the positive impact of raising the wage floor in bolstering the local economies. "I don't have a problem with it. If it will help employees, I'm for it. We will do the best we can do," said James Economos, owner of Saratoga Inn in Warren, Ohio, to one reporter. Misty Russell, a restaurant owner in Roseburg, Oregon, told a reporter that she had the economic security of her employees in mind: "I think food service is a tough business and I wouldn't want to shortchange any of my workers right now." The Denver Post highlighted one worker’s story that is emblematic of the dire straits facing working people and the unemployed. Kelly Wiedemer earned $31/hour as a financial analyst prior to the Great Recession. Now she has been forced to take a minimum wage job at age 46, unable to find work comparable to her old career for the two years she was on unemployment insurance.

In announcing his proposal in New York, Assembly Speaker Silver called out the hypocrisy of asking workers to get by on the minimum wage: “Frankly, it is absurd to expect anyone – let alone a working family – to afford the cost of living today and be able to invest in their future on a salary of $7.25 an hour; or $15,000 a year.” New Jersey Speaker Oliver echoed Silver, noting her proposal is “a recognition that thousands of households in New Jersey are struggling to subsist on minimum wage jobs that do not allow them to support their families.”

With momentum building in the states, it is clear that raising the minimum wage provides one of the most effective and immediate ways to address the needs of low-wage workers in a bad economy. Public opinion continues to show its deep resonance with people throughout the country, with 67% favoring restoring the minimum wage to $10 per hour. Particularly as wages continue to decline and the post-recession job market forces more and more people to accept lower-wage employment, policies that tangibly address the public’s concern about growing inequality and real economic insecurity can be a powerful force in changing the debate over government’s role in rebuilding a robust, profitable, and equitable economy.

Full Resources from this Article

Momentum Builds Across States for Raising Minimum Wage

National Employment Law Project - RaiseTheMinimumWage.org

Economic Policy Institute -  “A minimum wage milestone”
Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago - The Spending and Debt Responses to Minimum Wage Increases
Lake Research Partners - “The Economics and Public Support of the Minimum Wage”
National Employment Law Project - A Year of Unbalanced Growth: Industries, Wages, and the First 12 Months of Job Growth After the Great Recession
Washington Policy Watch - “Washington state voters were ahead of the curve on minimum wage – why can’t these legislators catch up?”

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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