Another unfortunate milestone in the reign of George W. Bush and the recently-deposed Republican Congress was reached on Saturday when the federal minimum wage set a new record for the longest period without a raise since its establishment in 1938. As of December 2, the $5.15-per-hour wage rate has remained unchanged for nine years and three months.
Not surprisingly, the prior record also occurred under Republican administrations, when the minimum wage rate remained stagnant from early 1981 until April of 1990 under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
"For nearly a decade, the prices of everyday necessities like gas, food, and prescription drugs have skyrocketed, while the paychecks of minimum wage workers haven't increased a cent," said Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) over the weekend. "Year after year, the Republican Congress has blocked all attempts to raise the minimum wage, while voting a pay raise for themselves almost every year."
An American working 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage makes only $10,712 a year, which is less than $900 a month to cover housing, health care, food and all other living expenses. And, given that most workers being paid minimum wage do not receive health benefits, that salary would barely cover the cost of buying medical insurance alone, much less other necessities.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the current minimum wage has also deteriorated in real value to the point that buying power for that compensation is at its lowest level since 1955.
"It is next to impossible for hard-working men and women to make ends meet for themselves and their families when they are earning wages established in 1997 and salaries that fall well below the poverty line," said Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) on Saturday, in response to this sad record being set. "The price of housing has increased, the price of higher education has increased, the price of health care and energy has increased. The only thing that hasn't increased since 1997 is the minimum wage."
Six states overwhelmingly voted in November to raise their minimum wage -- which supersedes the federal wage rate -- and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have been clear on making a pay hike for working families one of their top priorities when Democrats assume control in the 110th Congress next month.
And Kennedy, who has long been the Senator fighting hardest to give workers a raise -- seeing his legislation to accomplish that killed three times by the GOP leadership in the last two years alone -- will be the new chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and will focus like a laser on the issue from the first day of the new Congress.
"If there's one message from last month's election that emerged loud and clear, it's that no one who works for a living should have to live in poverty," said Kennedy. "The American people have spoken, and the new Congress will listen. When we convene in January, domestic priority number one will be to give minimum wage workers the long-overdue raises they deserve."