Among the many issues on which Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. focused was economic opportunity for all.
Just over 50 years ago, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. The rally confronted an array of political, social, and economic issues plaguing the country during the civil rights era. One of the 10 demands the marchers made was a raise in the minimum wage, aimed at offering “all Americans a decent standard of living.”
The proposed wage was $2 an hour, which is $15.23 in today’s dollars. And yet, the federal minimum wage remains a meager $7.25 an hour.
The current rate has remained unchanged for the past four years; had it been adjusted to match inflation rates since Dr. King’s plea for equal economic opportunity, today’s minimum wage would exceed $10 an hour.
Dan Essrow and Dan Crawford, both of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), find that if the value of the minimum wage had increased “alongside productivity,” it would be $18.75 today, and if it had increased “at the same rate as the wages of the top 1 percent, it would be $28 per hour.”
Raising the minimum wage, however, has proved to be an ongoing struggle in Congress.
In March of last year, the House GOP voted unanimously against Representative George Miller’s (D-CA) proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, arguing that doing so would discourage small businesses from hiring workers.
Currently, Congress is mulling over Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Miller’s latest $10.10 wage proposal, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013.
“Some Republicans have already agreed to that concept,” Harkin says. “The question is at what level.”
Still, many Republicans — including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) — argue that increasing the minimum wage would slow the nation’s economic recovery.
Studies also show that refusing to raise the minimum wage not only perpetuates the growing income inequality that threatens the nation’s dwindling middle class, but disproportionately impacts minorities. As the EPI points out, “on all socioeconomic measures, African-Americans still lag whites by wide margins.” In fact, even though African-Americans make up only 32 percent of the nation’s workforce, they account for 42 percent of minimum-wage workers.
Keeping the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour is a sure way to ensure that already existing wealth disparities keep families across the nation in poverty. If the rate were raised to just $10.10 an hour – $5 less than what is considered by many as a “living wage” – 30.3 million workers would get a raise by 2015, and 6.8 million people could potentially be lifted out of poverty.
The chart below demonstrates the wide gap between minimum-wage workers and middle-income workers. The graph shows that the minimum wage reached its peak value in 1968, when it aligned with middle-income wages. Since 1968, however, the gap between the minimum wage and middle-income wages has only widened, with the minimum wage declining in value.
Considering that over 50 years have passed since Dr. King and advocates like him urged lawmakers to support a decent living wage for all Americans, numbers demonstrating concentrated poverty among minorities and low-wage workers show just how far we must still go to achieve full job and income equality.
Raising the minimum wage is not just a racial or economic issue, but a social justice one, too.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Chart via Center On Budget and Policy Priorities