Andrew Lustig recently wrote that for nine years the federal minimum wage has been frozen at $5.15 per hour (“Bare Minimum,” February 10). That means a minimum-wage worker fortunate enough to secure forty hours of work a week, fifty-two weeks a year, brings home an annual salary of just $10,712. In 2002, the most recent year for which we have data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that over one million adult workers twenty-five or older were trying to eke out a living on that federal minimum, or an even lower one applied to tipped employees. Despite growing public support for an increase in the federal minimum wage, and a much-touted 1995 study, by Princeton economists David Card and Alan Krueger, suggesting that raising the wage floor certainly does not cut jobs and may even create them, the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress has successfully thwarted every legislative attempt to bring the federal minimum wage into the twenty-first century.

In the past nine years, there has been a steady erosion of the dollar’s buying power, with drastic consequences for the working poor. In the late 1960s, a full-time minimum-wage job pulled a family of three out of poverty. By the late 1990s, a minimum-wage income left the same family nearly 20 percent short of the poverty line. Today, a minimum-wage worker supporting two dependents brings home only two-thirds of the income necessary to surpass the poverty threshold.

As a result of Congress’s inaction, a burgeoning movement has developed to bypass Washington and pursue just-wage legislation at state and local levels. The Progressives of the early twentieth century, stymied by a conservative Supreme Court and Congress, made the states “laboratories of democracy” where they could experiment with reforms like unemployment insurance and the minimum wage. It was not until Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that the doors opened to federal action. Now, twenty-first century progressives are fighting for fairer wages in cities, counties, and states.

For over a decade, coalitions of labor unions, churches, and community organizations have successfully demanded “living wage” ordinances in more than a hundred cities and counties. These ordinances require that companies enjoying public contracts funded by taxpayer dollars must pay their employees a wage sufficient to lift them out of poverty. Similar coalitions are now attempting to implement general minimum-wage increases state by state, employing either legislative action or ballot initiatives.

The 2004 election results provided an interesting sidebar on public sentiment concerning the minimum wage. Whereas voters in both Nevada and Florida strongly supported George W. Bush for reelection, both states enacted referenda calling for an increase in the state minimum wage. They did so by landslide margins (68 percent in favor in Nevada, 71 percent in Florida). This year, similar movements to raise the wage floor are afoot across the country, and not just in “blue” states like California and Maryland or even battleground states like Colorado, Michigan, and New Mexico, but also in committed “red” ones like Virginia, Arizona, and Montana.

The most closely watched battle will be Ohio’s, where the well-organized Ohioans for a Fair Minimum Wage seems likely to gather the 322,000 signatures needed to place a measure on the ballot calling for a wage hike to $6.85 per hour. Two years ago, Ohio was the crucial swing state. Its tilt to Bush sealed his reelection. Many Democrats and progressives attributed Bush’s victory in Ohio to a well-timed ballot issue that amended the Ohio Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage-an issue that energized the president’s evangelical base. This year, Democrats in Ohio hope the minimum-wage question will give a similar boost to their candidates in crucial swing legislative races. “This is what moves people to the polls now,” Jen Kern of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) told the New York Times. Whether it proves to have the traction for progressives that anti-gay-marriage initiatives have had for conservatives remains to be seen.

Even without a spike in turnout by the party faithful, however, the minimum wage may serve as a powerful wedge issue for the Democrats. For four decades, the Republican Party has more and more effectively used intensely felt values issues-from abortion, patriotism, and crime in the Nixon and Reagan eras to gun rights, gay marriage, and national security today-to drive a wedge between a crucial bloc of white, blue-collar voters and the Democratic Party. Significant changes in the Democratic Party itself made this possible. Under Roosevelt, the Democrats became the party of the working classes by focusing on economic issues that united them, rather than social issues that divided them. After World War II, the party gradually turned from economic to cultural issues, first to a heroic but politically costly commitment to civil rights, then toward the current kaleidoscope of hot-button social issues. Many working families no longer felt at ease in the party, and the vacuum that resulted was only partly filled by the educated, middle-class voters attracted by the Democrats’ new stances on abortion rights, civil liberties, and war in Vietnam (yesterday) and Iraq (today).

The minimum wage may not draw the same fervor from this new Democratic base that the Iraq war or abortion rights do. But a minimum-wage increase holds a powerful attraction for a large bloc of blue-collar voters currently estranged from the party. A Pew Research Center poll released in May 2005 indicated that a whopping 79 percent of social conservatives favored an increase in the minimum wage. The fact that both Florida and Nevada’s 2004 minimum-wage initiatives polled at least twenty points higher than the Democratic presidential candidate suggests the issue may be one way for Democrats to get back in the “wedge issue” game drawing voters from outside their camp.

The truth is that aside from a pocket of ideologues committed to preserving freedom of contract, even at the price of social justice, virtually every segment of the electorate affirmed the need for an increase from the paltry $5.15 per hour. It is a near universal belief among America’s working and middle classes that every working family deserves a wage that allows a dignified life. It is a necessary corollary of the work ethic-and the flip side of welfare reform-to fulfill the promise that going from welfare to work is the path out of poverty. In other words, fair wages is a “values” issue that works in the Democrats’ favor. “We have an obligation to help our fellows pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” says Virginia Democratic State Senator Charles Colgan. He cosponsored legislation to raise Virginia’s minimum wage this year-legislation successfully killed in committee by determined opponents, but sure to return in 2007.

Whatever the next stage of this American political drama, Catholics will be a key swing voting bloc. It is no coincidence that the Virginia Fair Wage Act was sponsored by a pair of Catholic legislators-prolife Democrat Colgan in the Senate and Republican Vincent Callahan in the House-or that the measure was propelled largely by the actions of grassroots Catholic social-justice groups like Social Action Linking Together (SALT) working alongside labor-union lobbyists. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is a value too, one enshrined in Catholic social teaching. In the battleground state of Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell has made an increase in the state minimum wage one of his signature proposals for 2006, while his party has nominated prolife State Treasurer Robert Casey Jr. to challenge Republican Senator Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate seat. Both candidates are Catholic. Will the state’s Republicans try to maintain their edge in the “values” sweepstakes by adding fair wages to their Keystone state platform? If not, how will Catholics-hierarchy and laity-respond? This fall’s elections will tell us a lot about whether a fair wage has once again become a significant issue for most Americans.

Clayton Sinyai is the executive director of the Catholic Labor Network, an organization that brings together Catholic trade-union leaders with clergy and lay Catholic activists committed to Catholic social teaching on labor and work. You can reach him at [email protected]

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Published in the 2006-03-10 issue: View Contents
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