Federal minimum wage must rise to help working people survive

August 30, 2013 

When families go on the road this Labor Day weekend, more of them than usual will be relying on fast-food restaurants for a meal or two, in the interest of saving time or keeping the kids happy. It would be constructive if the adults in those families gave thought, as they placed their orders, to the struggle of workers in such restaurants, many if not most of whom are making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

To figure a weekly gross, don’t multiply that figure by 40. Many such workers are lucky to get 15 hours, maybe a little more.

The result is that many use food stamps. And while restaurant owners cite the thin margin of profit they have, consider the margin the workers have, which is no margin at all. They’re close to poverty if not in it, depending upon how many people they’re trying to support.

Their desperation was evident in the demonstrations this week around the country and in North Carolina by fast-food workers who say they need a raise to survive, and they’re right. President Obama says the minimum should be $9, and it probably ought to be $10.

A living wage, even a barely living wage, has multiple positive effects.

First, it might provide such workers with a little money to spend with other merchants, be that money for groceries or school clothes or other necessities. (Certainly there will be few luxuries.) So that’s something positive going into local economies.

The situation has worsened in recent years because older workers who had pretty good jobs and lost them in the Great Recession have, after seeking jobs comparable to the ones they had, been forced into lower-paying jobs, and, yes, sometimes minimum-wage jobs. But their expenses, meaning rent or food or doctors’ bills for their kids, have remained the same. A boost in the minimum wage would be more than a little help.

This scenario has an impact elsewhere in the economy. The job market for teenagers looking for summer work or part-time work has shrunk to the all-time low point because of a lack of jobs and because what jobs there are may be filled by older workers. So those teens, who ordinarily might be using their wages for entertainment, don’t have it, and those who might need to save all they make to cover school expenses are looking at a situation where their ends will never meet. One economist called the current problem a “Great Depression” for young people.

A raise in the minimum wage ought to serve, then, as a stimulus in the overall economy. Absent that increase, those on the lowest rungs of the wage ladder, who haven’t had an increase in the minimum wage rate since 2009, will be in a state of stagnation. And the country’s overall recovery will be slowed. The same is true in North Carolina, where the unemployment rate is too high and has been so for too long.

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