Until 1968, minimum wage workers took frequent and big enough steps forward to make overall progress. Since 1968, when the minimum wage reached its peak buying power, workers have taken many steps backward for every step forward.
The July 24 minimum wage raise is so little, so late that workers will still make less than they did in 1997, adjusting for the increased cost of living, and way less than in 1968.
The decade between the federal minimum wage increase to $5.15 an hour on Sept. 1, 1997, and the July 24, 2007 increase to $5.85 was the longest period in history without a raise.
The new $6.55 minimum wage is lower than the 1997 minimum wage, which is worth $6.88 in 2008 dollars, and way lower than the inflation-adjusted $9.86 minimum wage of 1968. For full-time workers that translates into $20,509 a year at the 1968 rate, compared with just $13,624 at the hourly rate of $6.55.
The minimum wage does not provide a minimally adequate living standard -- and it still won't when the last scheduled raise to $7.25 takes place next July.
Health care aides can't afford to take sick days. Retail clerks and child care workers depend on food banks. Security guards sleep at homeless shelters.
It wasn't always this way. Workers used to share in the gains of rising worker productivity.
Between 1947 and 1973, worker productivity rose 104 percent and the minimum wage rose 101 percent, adjusting for inflation. The middle class grew.
Between 1973 and 2007, productivity rose 83 percent and the minimum wage fell 22 percent, adjusting for inflation. Average worker wages fell 10 percent while domestic corporate profits rose 219 percent, and profits in the disproportionately low-wage retail industry jumped 346 percent. More jobs paid poverty wages.
Higher education does not protect you from falling wages. The inflation-adjusted wages of recent college graduates were lower in 2007 than they were in 2001.
Our modern robber baron age features people like Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo. He pocketed $103 million last year as the subprime mortgage ponzi scheme morphed into the worst financial crisis since the Depression.
Minimum wage workers don't put raises into predatory lending, commodity speculation or offshore tax havens. They recycle their needed raises back into local businesses and the economy through increased spending.