Several weeks ago I was granted the enormous privilege to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address as the guest of Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum. My invitation to this hallmark event was accorded to me through no distinction of my own, but rather as the result of the boundless energy, tireless dedication and tremendous work of the staff, volunteers and supporters of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties. For 50 years, Community Action has provided critical and transformative services to low-income and historically underserved populations in the War on Poverty.
As I listened to the president’s address, I found inspiration in the stories of ordinary Americans who are making extraordinary impacts in their communities. Two particular individuals that the president recognized in his speech were a pair of small business owners located right here in the Twin Cities, John Sorrano and John Puckett.
As the co-owners of Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Sorrano and Puckett recently instituted a minimum wage of $10/hour for employees at each of their eight locations throughout the metropolitan area. The president lauded the leadership and vision of the two Minnesota restaurateurs and encouraged more business owners to follow their example by proactively raising the wages of American workers.
The debate on whether or not to increase the minimum wage has been a perpetual element of our political and socioeconomic discourse and has grown more contentious in recent years. Minnesota’s legislators have recently agreed to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50/hour by the year 2016. Recent polls suggest broad popular support for this initiative in Minnesota, just as similar proposals throughout the nation have garnered increasing support.
In fact, a CNN Money article notes that a recent proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to over $10/ hour has the support of 75 top economists, including seven Nobel Prize winners in economics. This article also illustrates that, adjusted for inflation, the current minimum wage is roughly 33 percent less than the minimum wage of 1968.
However, in spite of the growing sentiment to raise wages both among democratic legislators and economic theorists, others argue that an increase to $9.50/hour in a state like Minnesota or a federal wage of $10.10/hour is simply not enough to help low-income workers chart a course toward self-sufficiency.
A 2013 report by WOW (Wider Opportunities for Women) illustrates that $10.20/hour is considered a livable wage in America’s poorest county, while a minimum wage of more than $14/hour would be required for all Americans to realize economic security. Now an online tool developed more than a decade ago reveals data that is even more disconcerting.
Led by Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed and released “The Living Wage Calculator” in late 2004. This instrument illustrates the full-time wage necessary for an individual to independently support a household in every county in the nation. Here in Ramsey County, for example, the livable wage for one adult is $9.69/ hour. However, the living wage for one adult and one child doubles to more than $20/hour. For one adult and two children the living wage is over $26/hour, and for one adult and three children it exceeds $33/hour.
This data is beyond troubling to me and forces me to consider the question, “How can we tolerate blatant disrespect and mistreatment of our fellow workers?”
For years, the popular perception has been that most minimum wage earners were teenagers experiencing their initial foray into the workforce. This perception is no longer accurate. The Economic Policy Institute reported in August 2013 that 88 percent of minimum wage earners are older than 20 with an average age of 35.
These are people with families, many of whom are working 40-plus hours a week and yet struggle mightily to adequately support their household. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of minimum wage jobs are service oriented, meaning that these individuals, our fellow citizens, are working hard to make all our lives easier. Shouldn’t we all be doing better by them?
Perhaps the renowned economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith put it best in his 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations, where he proclaimed that workers “of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labor as to be themselves tolerably well fed, clothed and lodged.”
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.