“We find our population suffering from old inequalities, little changed by vast sporadic remedies. In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the over privileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. Both of these manifestations of injustice have retarded happiness. No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the profit motive; because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and for our families.” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, January 4, 1935
Day in and day out men and women all over our country work hard at their jobs—but hardly have anything to show for it.
As the debate over income inequality and narrowing the ever-widening wealth gap continues to dominate our national and political conversations, private corporations and states are taking matters into their own hands, bridging the dueling divides of income and opportunity by increasing the minimum wage.
Target is reportedly raising employee wages to a $10 minimum in May. This would be the second wage hike in a year for the retail giant. Only a few weeks ago, the governors of New York and California signed bills that would gradually increase their states’ minimum wages to $15—the highest in the nation.
In the face of the Congress’ refusal to increase the federal minimum wage, these gestures from private enterprise and legislative offices reflect a new reality in our post-recession economy: jobs are coming back, but, for the most part, they aren’t the kinds of jobs that pay a living wage. Very often, they are not the kinds of jobs that serve as a platform to better paying work. And they are the kinds of jobs that predominately employ young people, minorities and women—the most vulnerable members of our low-wage, slow growth recovery economy.
What was a Franklin Roosevelt era labor law meant to put a floor on poverty in America has become a low ceiling barring millions of American workers from present and future prosperity.
For 10 years, the National Urban League has advocated for a federal minimum wage hike tied to the Consumer Price Index, which tracks inflation by observing changes over time in consumer pricing for a variety of goods. If prices are going up—and they are—wages that don’t reflect these hikes in prices translates into working-class employees never getting ahead and being forced to make difficult choices to survive, provide for themselves and their family.
The current federal minimum wage stands at $7.25. President Barack Obama, during a State of the Union address, said, “Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” Well, on $7.25 an hour, you can bet they will. In fact, if the minimum wage kept pace with inflation, the current minimum wage would be $19. We support a $15 minimum wage, tied to inflation.
With more Americans surviving on minimum wage than at any other point in our history, to ignore the issue of wages is to ignore the problem of income inequality, and to ignore the struggles of men and women left behind as the economy recovers. While I applaud the initiative taken by states and businesses to provide employees with living wages, we must put an end to the “vast, sporadic remedies” condemned by President Roosevelt.
The current patchwork of state minimum wages is not a solution. Congress needs to do its job. Republicans supported minimum wage increases under President George W. Bush, but have blocked all efforts to raise it since then. Rather than condemn a generation to a lifetime of poverty, let’s afford them the opportunity to earn living wages and climb the economic ladder of opportunity and success.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.