Op-Ed

Support for higher wages critical for NC families

North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross
North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross AP

Working families are struggling across North Carolina with stagnant pay and falling real wages. Low pay is so pervasive that nearly half of North Carolinians today earn less than $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year. With control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance this November, North Carolina voters could make the difference in deciding whether Congress breaks the gridlock and acts to raise pay for working families.

During his years in Congress, N.C. Sen. Richard Burr has opposed every effort to raise the federal minimum wage and has repeatedly voted against increasing it. He is locked in a tight re-election race with challenger Deborah Ross, who has called for raising the minimum wage to help North Carolina’s working families.

Polling released this Labor Day shows that the issue of raising the minimum wage could actually flip voters. North Carolina voters, by an overwhelming 72 percent to 23 percent margin, want Congress to drop its opposition and raise the minimum wage. And by only a slightly lower 62 percent to 33 percent margin, they support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour over several years.

The new poll also shows that this is a voting issue. By a 48 percent to 39 percent margin, North Carolina voters say that they are less likely to support a candidate who is against raising the minimum wage. And for North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race, the poll shows that highlighting Burr’s opposition to raising the minimum wage and Ross’ support for raising it could make a significant difference in the race.

Informing likely voters of the two candidates’ positions on the minimum wage shifts voter support by a total of 6 points – from a 46 percent-43 percent Burr lead, to Ross ahead by a 45 percent-42 percent margin. With polls showing the Senate race very close, bread-and-butter economic issues like the minimum wage could make the difference in who North Carolina’s working families send to the Senate in January to look out for their interests.

Burr and the Republican majority in Congress have kept the minimum wage so low that working North Carolinians must rely on taxpayer-funded safety net programs to get by – letting McDonald’s and Wal-Mart off the hook for providing a decent paycheck. As a result, more than 923,000 working people and their children in North Carolina are enrolled in Medicaid and related health programs, and 390,000 must turn to food stamps to put meals on the table, with taxpayers footing the bill.

Ten years ago in states like Missouri and Montana, candidates’ positions on the minimum wage helped make the difference in close U.S. Senate races. That year Democrats Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, minimum wage increase supporters, successfully used their support for a higher minimum wage to highlight the difference for working families between them and then-incumbent Republican Sens. Jim Talent and Conrad Burns, who both opposed raising the minimum wage. McCaskill and Tester rode the issue to an Election Day victory, helping to break the logjam in Congress and deliver the first federal minimum wage increase in 10 years in 2007.

With the need to raise wages long overdue again, the minimum wage is poised to make the difference again this fall. Working North Carolinians are making clear their demand to break the gridlock and raise pay – and this fall will reward candidates who listen.

Michael De Los Santos is the director of operations for Action NC, a community organizing and issue advocacy group.

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