The loud but small-sized movement to raise the minimum wage is made up of good people. There are not enough of them to make a difference. Their voice is amplified in corporate news outlets, but neither the federal nor state governments have acted to raise the minimum wage in a long time.
Today the Johnson County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss a county ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017. Iowa City native David Goodner feels this is not enough and called for raising it to $15. As we posted yesterday, Iowa labor commissioner Michael Mauro said the ordinance Johnson County is discussing is inconsistent with Iowa law and therefore unconstitutional. The county attorney has not reported to the board on the legality of a potential ordinance.
Goodner wrote in the print edition of today’s Iowa City Press Citizen, “According to the Iowa Policy Project, a livable wage for a single worker in Iowa is $13.04 an hour. A single mom with kids needs $28.07 an hour to make ends meet. Married workers with two kids need $16.89 an hour each.”
The numbers are a familiar construct and seem reasonable to progressive readers who follow the Iowa Policy Project. Peter Fisher and Lily French’s article, “The Cost of Living in Iowa – 2014 Edition” is well researched and often quoted. “The Johnson County Board of Supervisors know what the research says. So why not $15 an hour now?” wrote Goodner. “Why should workers have to wait to earn a livable wage?”
Where is the groundswell of support from the 3.3 million U.S. workers who are at or below minimum wage to raise it? The answer is complicated, but Pew Research Center gets us started in answering the question.
People at or below the federal minimum wage are disproportionately young (50.4% are ages 16 to 24; 24% are teenagers age 16 to 19); mostly (77%) white; nearly half being white women; and largely part-time workers (64% of the total), according to Pew. They work in food preparation and serving; sales; personal care and service; office and administrative support; building and grounds maintenance; and other low-skill occupations.
Work needs doing and competitive compensation is required of businesses to get it done. If minimum wage gets the job done, and for the most part it has, there is no natural incentive to raise it.
Some try to subsist on a single minimum wage job. It is hard to tell from the Pew numbers how many people that is. What is borne out by my experience is it is unreasonable to assume people work a single minimum wage job to make household ends meet. Actually, as Iowa Policy Project research shows, it’s impossible.
At the same time, the old sawhorse of taking the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, multiplying it by 40 hours per week for a result of $290 per week gross income is essentially meaningless. It is no justification for much of anything. Minimum wage jobs are worked in a complex cultural context that matters more than the rate of pay.
From talking to dozens of low wage workers, I’ve found — in every case — taking a minimum wage or lowly paid job has been a trade-off of priorities and a temporary measure for those earning an hourly wage. What matters more is a social support network that includes income from a second job, pension or other household members; shared housing; alternative food sources; shared or public transportation; and no-cost child care from family and friends. Health care is a significant expense in terms of time off work, deductibles and co-pays. Our health care system has a long way to go to be affordable for low wage workers.
If the Johnson County supervisors decide to raise the county minimum wage, it would in part reflect a dissatisfaction with state and federal government for failing to act. People can demand what they want, and low-wage workers will take it.
People who talk about raising the minimum wage don’t get that cancer, hip replacements, divorces, incarceration, poor diet, addictions, lawsuits, sore backs, weak knees, bullying, discrimination, firearms, transportation, lack of access to health care and everything else involved in living in our society enter into the picture.
If government is going to raise the minimum wage, be quick about it. Then get on to solving more pressing problems that impact low wage workers.