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Stepping Up to Fill the Minimum Wage Gap

With the minimum wage at its lowest level in 50 years, five states use the ballot to push their own initiatives.

States this November are using ballot initiatives to fill the wage gap Congress has left by failing to pass legislation to raise the minimum wage. The federal minimum wage was last raised nine years ago when Congress approved a raise from $4.75/hour to $5.15/hour. During this time Congress has raised its own wages by $31,600.

Nevada, Montana, Missouri, Ohio, and Arizona will all be voting on amendments to their state constitutions to raise the minimum wage this November. The minimum wage is currently at its lowest level in 50 years, and these ballot initiatives seek to bridge the gap by raising the requirement to between $6.15/hour and $6.75/hour.

Current federal regulations keep minimum wage workers earning only $10,700 a year. This means that a family of three with only one full-time minimum wage earner falls $5,378 below the poverty line. And contrary to conservative rhetoric, most minimum wage workers are not teenagers trying to earn spending cash. 35 percent of minimum wage workers are their families’ sole earners. Women account for 61 percent of minimum wage workers, and almost one-third of those women are raising children.

The Center for American Progress recently released a report on the minimum wage ballot initiative in Ohio showing that the proposed wage increase would immediately help 700,000 workers. Raising the federal minimum wage would directly affect 11 million women and their families, 18.1 percent of all African-American workers, and 14.4 percent of Hispanic workers.

The federal government can and should follow the states’ lead by raising the minimum wage. The Economic Policy Institute conducted a study that shows that unemployment and poverty rates dropped following the last minimum wage increase in 1997. Economists David Card and Alan B. Krueger corroborate this evidence by showing that unemployment rates declined in states that increased the minimum wage in the early 1990s, and rose in neighboring states without wage increases. The Fiscal Policy Institute shows similar gains for small businesses in states with minimum wage increases; between 1998 and 2004, job growth for small businesses in states with a higher minimum wage was 6.2 percent, compared to only 4.1 percent in states without minimum wage increases.

Raising the minimum wage will immediately help millions of struggling working Americans and positively affect the American economy. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll recently showing that 86 percent of Americans favor raising the minimum wage, and 43 percent of Americans consider raising the minimum wage a top priority. It is time for the federal government to follow the will of the American people and the lead of the states and seriously consider legislation to increase the minimum wage.

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