There are about 7 million American workers who earn $5.15 an hour. That's $206 for a 40-hour week, before taxes. That's $10,712 a year, before taxes, or a little over half of the federal poverty level for a family of four.
Single people can't support themselves anywhere in America on that little money. You certainly can't support a family on it. Yet you hear conservative think tanks, lobbyists and business groups singing the same old song about how raising the minimum wage is an unfair and unwanted intrusion that hurts workers and hurts the economy.
That view is pure, unadulterated nonsense.
Here in Vermont, the minimum wage was just increased to $7.25 an hour. In 2007, it will also be indexed to the rate of inflation. So every year, the minimum wage will be increased up to a maximum of 5 percent.
That's one of the highest minimum wages in the nation. At the same time, Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.
Oregon also has a $7.25 minimum wage. That state has a job growth rate that is twice that of other states.
An economic quirk? No.
It's a simple fact that when workers are paid more money, they have more money to spend. That in turn creates more jobs. And rather than cost employers more money, a better-paid worker is a worker more likely to stay on the payroll.
There is widespread support for an increase in the federal minimum wage. It is seen as a matter of basic fairness that will reduce the ranks of the impoverished in America.
It is also an unbeatable issue for Democrats to campaign on this fall.
So far, 17 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages above the federal rate. Several other states Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Nevada and Ohio will likely get a chance to vote on increasing the minimum wage in November.
California Gov. Arnold Schwartzegger has just proposed raising California's minimum wage up to $7.25 by September this year and $7.75 by July 2007.
And even Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said that he wants Congress to raise the minimum wage so that his customers can afford to shop at his stores.
So why is the federal minimum wage still at $5.15, a pitiful level that is worth less in real terms that at any time since the mid-1950s? Because most of Congress is in the pocket of the retail and restaurant lobbies, and there is little chance for change.
The last try at raising the minimum wage, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005, went nowhere in Congress. Proposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., it would have phased in an increase up to $7.25 an hour over a two-year period.
Even a $7.25 minimum wage is just that, the minimum. In most places, $10-$11 is considered a living wage for an hourly worker, and unless you are living in a place with a tight labor market and generous employers, you are unlikely to see that kind of money for an entry-level job.
It is great to see so many states take the lead on this important issue. But where you live shouldn't automatically determine what you get paid. If you work for a living, you should be able to have a decent standard of living. That's why the federal minimum wage was established seven decades ago, to ensure that workers across the nation would be paid fairly.
Economic justice is the ultimate campaign issue. It used to be the bedrock principle of the Democratic Party, before it decided in the 1990s that supporting labor would cut into the donations they got from big business.
"Working poor" should be seen as an oxymoron. If you work, you shouldn't be poor. If Democrats want to get back the working class vote that they lost to Republicans, they won't do it by refighting the culture wars. They can do it by supporting workers and arguing for better pay and benefits.