Racial Justice Requires Increasing The Minimum Wage
By Kyle Southern
The last time Congress voted to increase the minimum wage, George W. Bush was president. Now, almost 15 years later, President Biden must stay strong to push for a higher minimum wage that would increase income for one out of five American workers. And if anyone questions why a raise for low-wage workers must be part of our collective response to Covid-19, they need only consider the jobs performed by the people who work hardest to get by with the lowest pay.
Increasing the minimum wage is essential for the economic security of young workers, as well. Although about 20% of workers paid by the hour are younger than 25, workers under 25 make up almost half the workforce paid federal minimum wage or less. Simply put, our economic recovery as a nation and the economic security of today’s young people demand a significant increase in the federal minimum wage.
A quick historical note about the minimum wage is important. First established nationally by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Congress excluded jobs largely performed by women and Black workers. These exclusions allowed wage disparities for workers in areas including agriculture, domestic services, and education.
Minimum wage laws did not cover a majority of Black workers until amendments in the 1960s. According to economists, “As a result, the 1967 minimum wage expansion…led to a decline in the racial income divide. Overall, the introduction of a $1 minimum wage floor explains more than 20 percent of the fall in both the racial earnings and income divides experienced between 1965 and 1980.”
Despite expansion of the minimum wage proving an effective tool to tackle racial income inequality, federal policy has failed to keep pace with rising productivity and inflation. If the minimum wage had kept pace with these economic indicators, today’s minimum wage would be closer to $24. And as YI wrote in The Path Forward, current law permits more than 1.3 million workers to receive subminimum wages, including young people and people with disabilities–sometimes of just pennies an hour.
That’s why the Raise the Wage Act, which aims to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025, can only be seen as a long-overdue and welcome step in the right direction on a much longer journey to honoring the dignity of work.
More than half the states–including Florida in last November’s election–have raised their minimum wages above the federal baseline, as have some local governments. Although opponents of increasing the minimum wage often claim higher wages for the lowest-paid workers will force employers to cut employees, the evidence is not on their side.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, here are some of the things raising the federal minimum wage to $15 would do:
- Increase pay for nearly 32 million workers—a fifth of the national workforce.
- Begin to reverse decades of growing pay inequality, especially for workers who are Black, Latinx, and women. Nearly a third of Black workers and more than a quarter of Latinx workers would get a raise.
- Generate $107 billion in higher wages, helping fuel an equitable economic recovery.
As the nation honors Black History Month, we should recall that civil rights activists came to Washington, DC in 1963 as part of the historic March for Jobs and Freedom. Increasing the federal minimum wage today will help more people have both.
Dr. Kyle Southern is Policy and Advocacy Director for Higher Education and Workforce at Young Invincibles.