What do Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all have in common? Besides being home to the first three presidential nominating contests, these states are also filled with minimum wage workers and voters who desperately need a raise. In a crowded field, raising the minimum wage is a smart issue for candidates who want to differentiate themselves to the electorate. It also happens to be the right thing to do.
Instead of having a state minimum wage, each of these states—along with 18 others, including general election swing states like Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—fall back on the federal minimum wage as a floor of what employers can legally pay workers. This patchwork of state and local wage laws has distorted the value of work and left millions of employees being paid substantially less than their colleagues in other states.
Democratic candidates Hilary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Martin O’Malley all agree that the federal minimum wage should be raised. Several of the GOP candidates still need to step up and take a stand that’s good for these voters and the country. At a previous debate, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum both declared their support for a raise for low-income workers. While their specific policies could be more robust, Carson even endorsed the idea of indexing the minimum wage to inflation, so that “we never have to have this conversation again in the history of America.”
The civil rights movement has been calling for increases in the minimum wage since before the March on Washington demanded one back in 1963. Indexing it to inflation would ensure that we don’t have to engage in protracted battles just so working people can keep up with the economy. According to a report released by our organizations, if the minimum wage were adjusted for inflation from 1968, workers who make the current annual wage of $15,080 would earn more than $20,000. In fact, the minimum wage would be markedly higher if it kept pace with almost any economic indicator impacting the low-wage labor market, including productivity or average wages for all workers.
An MIT researcher estimates that a typical two-adult, two-child family “needs to work more than three full-time jobs (a 68-hour work week per adult) to earn a living wage” if they are only working jobs that pay the federal minimum wage. For the three million workers in the U.S. currently being paid the minimum wage or less, this is unacceptable, unsustainable and inconsistent with our nation’s values.
Minimum wage workers are increasingly our breadwinners, contributing 54.3 percent on average to their families’ income. They are also significantly older and more educated than ever. A raise would also boost the incomes of African Americans, Latinos, women, LGBT individuals, people with disabilities, immigrants, and other disadvantaged individuals (and their families), as these groups are disproportionately represented in low-wage work.
We also know, from a great body of research, that modest minimum wage increases have essentially no adverse employment effects. This is why more businesses are joining the Catholic Church and other faith groups alongside civil rights organizations in supporting a raise, and one of many reasons why the majority of Americans agree.
The presidential candidates should listen to voters. It’s time for every presidential candidate to catch up with the nation in calling for a raise in the federal minimum wage.
Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Edelman is the director of the Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality.