Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

In 2017, as Trump administration officials pushed for a tax cut for corporations and the rich, Republican officials said the measure would give the average worker a raise of at least $4,000 a year. That would be a 26.5% raise for minimum wage workers, a life-changing increase.

But it never happened.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from May 2018, a few months after the tax cut took effect, until May 2019, the average weekly worker’s earnings rose $3.70.  Over a year, that’s a total of $192.40 — a measly 5% of the $4,000 promised.

Democrats would like to help out minimum wage workers. They’ve introduced the Raise the Wage Act of 2019 which would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Democratic leaders in the U.S. House may bring the Raise the Wage Act up for a vote next month.

That’s great as far as it goes. To actually get a raise, low income workers need Republicans who control the Senate to pass the Raise the Wage Act as well. And then they need President Donald Trump to sign it. Unfortunately for minimum wage workers, that’s about as likely to happen as that GOP tax cut giving workers a $4,000 raise this year.

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