What’s Left: Minimum Equality

Sid Wadhera

Last Wednesday, February 12, President Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for all federal contract workers to $10.10 from $7.25, which was the first of many steps he outlined to tackle inequality, his main focus for the remainder of his second term.

Whilst signing the executive order, President Obama once again urged Congress – as he did in his State of the Union Address – to “give America a raise.” The idea of a wage increase for the average American worker has been seen by the left as an opportunity to stymie the decline in median earnings and growing inequality in the nation.

Not surprisingly, Republicans in the House of Representatives have refused to act on the measure. They bring up the basic, Econ 101 arguments about how raising the minimum wage will lead to more unemployment and harm American businesses. Yet, in a 2012 study discussing the minimum wage proposal of Senator Harkin (D-Iowa), the Economic Policy Institute  pointed out that over the long run, raising the minimum wage would actually end up creating more than 10,000 jobs.

Moving beyond the basic economic impact, raising the minimum wage is extremely important to restore equality of opportunity in the United States. The federal minimum wage has not gone up since 2009, and with steady – albeit controlled and reasonable – inflation since then, that $7.25 is not worth what it was. The aforementioned Economic Policy Institute study also discusses the human impact of raising the minimum wage. The majority of minimum wage workers are not teenage part-timers, as is often the stereotype, but rather 88 percent are over the age of 20 and more than a quarter are parents.

To these parents, families and individuals, it means more time devoted to pursuits outside of minimum wage work. It means not worrying where the next meal is coming from. It means paying the heating bill come next winter. All of these are the basic needs that, if filled, will enhance equal opportunity in America today.

How can a girl learn her long division when her stomach is grumbling because she hasn’t eaten anything since dinner last night? And how can a boy finish his book report when the heat isn’t on at home? Education is the foundation for moving up in American society today, but education gets thrown to the wayside when a child is worrying about where their next meal is coming from or whether the heat will come back on.

So last week’s raise of the minimum wage for federal contract workers is a step in the right direction to restoring equal opportunity, for restoring opportunity for all. But it’s a long way to go from a single executive order focusing on a minority of workers to helping out the entire American working population.

Until an intransigent Congress stops bowing to special interests and starts working for the American people, we can only be left dreaming about a higher minimum wage, lower healthcare costs, means-tested food assistance and a slew of other programs that work to enhance opportunity. Until then, we will be left chasing the American dream.

Contact Sid Wadhera at [email protected].