Guest column: Fundamental fairness

Idahoans voting in November should remember who supports raising the minimum wage and who does not, writes Nels Mitchell.

By Nels Mitchell

The minimum wage should be a living wage. This is a matter of fundamental fairness and economic justice. By setting the minimum wage, Congress can prevent wages from dropping to poverty levels. A person who works full time should not need to rely on public assistance.

In past years, Congress increased the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living, raising it to $1.60 in 1968, $2.30 in 1976, $3.35 in 1981, $5.15 in 1997, and $7.25 in 2009. Unfortunately, Congress has let the minimum wage fall behind. The current minimum wage is worth 25 percent less in buying power than the minimum wage I received in the 1970s while washing dishes at Boise’s Elk’s Hospital or moving irrigation pipe at a Garden Valley ranch.

Traditionally, both parties supported raising the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living. No longer. In April, Sen. James Risch and other far right Republicans blocked an effort to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over a three-year period. Nonetheless, raising the minimum wage has overwhelming support: a recent Gallup poll found that even 50 percent of Republicans supported it.

The $10.10 proposal would have helped about 176,000 people in Idaho where 29,000 workers receive the bare minimum and 147,000 others make less than $10.10. Working 40 hours per week for 52 weeks at $7.25 an hour, a minimum wage worker earns about $15,000 for the year. If the minimum wage is raised to $10.10, that same worker would receive almost $6,000 more a year. That could make a huge difference in someone’s life—a decent apartment, school supplies for a child, a more reliable car.

Without doubt, raising the minimum wage will also help local economies. Minimum wage workers will not ship their earnings to the Cayman Islands or Swiss bank accounts. The additional income will be spent right here at home in Idaho. Why, then, did Risch vote to kill the minimum wage bill? Perhaps he doesn’t know that the cost of living has been going up. After all, Senators who receive $174,000 per year salaries don’t worry about making ends meet.

Some suggest that, by raising the minimum wage, we would somehow hurt teenage workers. But, the average age of a minimum wage worker is 35 years old. Almost 60 percent of minimum wage workers are women, and 25 percent are parents.

Others claim that raising the minimum wage may cost jobs. However, that argument ignores the research. The New York Times recently explained, “The minimum wage is one of the most thoroughly researched issues in economics…The weight of the evidence shows that increases in the minimum wage have lifted pay without hurting employment, a point that was driven home in a recent letter to [the President] and congressional leaders, signed by more than 600 economists, among them Nobel laureates and past presidents of the American Economic Association.”

I suspect Risch voted to kill the $10.10 minimum wage bill because special interests making record profits on the backs of underpaid workers wanted it killed. After all, minimum wage workers have no Washington lobbyists, and they can’t write big campaign checks.

But minimum wage workers are not without power. They can vote. It is time that low wage workers and those who believe in economic fairness stand up and make their voices heard. I support raising the minimum wage. Jim Risch doesn’t. Register. Vote. And remember in November.