Fighting so that no one is left behind

This week, Congress will be asked to take a stand to keep hope alive for millions of America’s working poor by voting to increase the minimum wage over the next two years. Congress must send a clear message: America must leave no one behind.

Democrats in Congress, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), as well as President Clinton, have proposed a much-needed increase in the national minimum wage.

This effort is simple, it calls for a “$5.65 an hour (minimum wage) during the year beginning on Jan. 1, 1999” and a “$6.15 (minimum wage) during the year beginning on Jan. 1, 2000.” They are asking for bipartisan support of this effort. Why?

Low-wage workers in America need a raise. Across the country, soup kitchens, food pantries and homeless shelters increasingly are serving the nation’s working poor. These people have jobs, but are paid so little they cannot afford to feed themselves and their families and pay rent. Forget about health insurance, new clothes or many of the conveniences many of us take for granted.

Why isn’t the 1996 minimum wage good enough? Soon, Americans who earn the present national minimum wage ($5.15 per hour) will have the lowest purchasing power (adjusted for inflation) in nearly fifty years.

Presently, a full-time minimum wage worker earns $10,700 a year – a wage $2,900 below the poverty level for a family of three in America. No GW student would ever want to depend on this salary, but for millions of Americans, a minimum wage job is the difference between life and death. But these working class Americans are being left behind as inflation outpaces wage increases.

If we do nothing, by the year 2000 the real value of the minimum wage will be only $4.82 an hour, back to below the level where the minimum wage was when Congress increased the national minimum wage in 1996.

At a time of peak economic growth and success we must do more to lift all Americans above the poverty line and we must reject those who say America must always have a “poor class.”

The $1 per hour increase in the minimum wage over the next two years (that Kennedy’s bill calls for) is not enough to last forever, but it is a crucial step toward restoring the purchasing power of America’s working class and preventing wages from slipping further as inflation grows annually.

This $1 per hour increase means so much for a working family. It equals seven months of groceries, eight months of rent. For some families it may mean the difference between having electricity or paying for water. For a student working to put him/herself through college, this wage increase will pay for two-thirds of a year’s tuition at a local public college. The impact is powerful for working Americans.

Minimum wage increases do not hurt the economy. As we have seen in the past, jobs have grown just as fast in states where the minimum wage has been raised. Many cities, like Baltimore, have already raised wages above $6.10 (the proposed wage) and have not seen any loss in jobs.

It also should be noted that since the 1996-’97 wage increases took effect (in two stages), the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment decreased and employment increased. Unemployment is at its lowest level (4.5 percent) in a generation. Yet, even as unemployment stays steady, we are leaving many working Americans behind with the growth of inflation.

Call your members of Congress (Democrats and Republicans) at (202) 224-3121 and encourage them to join Clinton and Kennedy to increase the national minimum wage and raise hope for millions of working Americans. We must always work to build an America where we leave no one behind.

-The writer is past president of the GW College Democrats.

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