With the upper echelons of society taking home increasingly huge portions of the nation’s wealth, the country’s lowest-wage workers – the burger flippers and cashiers who are as integral to the American fabric as Wall Street’s CEOs – are increasingly being pushed into poverty by an economy that’s not working for them.
President Obama’s push to address this growing problem, in part by raising the minimum wage, is drawing the usual howls from conservatives eager to use his every policy initiative for political gain – even if it means trashing low-wage workers who have been left behind and misrepresenting the economic realities they face.
Congress’s failure to keep the minimum wage on par with inflation means that affected workers now take home pay lower than they did in 1968. Currently, full-time minimum-wage work is worth just over $15,000 a year, an amount too paltry to keep a family of four – or three, or even two – above the poverty line. But eroding take-home pay has less to do with workers’ actual value than an economy rigged in favor of those who command economic and political power.
Despite the common mischaracterizations, most minimum-wage workers are adults who are their families’ primary earners, not just teenagers looking to make an extra buck, and they tend to be more educated than they were in the past. Yet rather than crafting policy that rewards hard work with basic economic security, Republicans are content to perpetuate myths about workers’ ages, abilities, and ambition.
Although a number of Republicans supported the most recent minimum wage increase in 2007, this time around the Tea Party crowd and a host of Republican governors are setting themselves up as roadblocks to economic opportunity. Disregarding the economists who advise in favor of a higher minimum wage and the studies that show fears of job losses to be unfounded, some of the top Tea Party Republicans in Congress even want to go so far as to abolish the minimum wage. Meanwhile, groups representing the interests of big business, often funded by wealthy conservatives who stand to benefit from the elimination of worker protections, are fueling the right-wing opposition.
Following President Obama’s call for increasing the minimum wage in his State of the Union address last night, it is now up to Republicans in Congress to decide if they are going to join him in helping hardworking Americans or stand with the Tea Party fanatics and special interests who want to block it.