On January 30, the Senate voted 87-10 to end debate on the current federal minimum wage bill, paving the way for intense discussions between the House and Senate in the coming weeks.
The bill, proposed formally by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), would raise the federal minimum wage from its current level of $5.15 to $7.25, marking the first time in nearly 10 years that the minimum wage has been raised.
Due to Congressional inaction on the subject, many states have been forced to raise the minimum wages within their borders on their own. Washington has the highest minimum wage in the country at $7.93, and Oregon is second at $7.80. Seven states have minimum wages that are already greater than $7.25, but there are still 20 states paying minimum wage workers at the federal level of $5.15 an hour, most of them located in the South and Great Plains.
There has been a great deal of discussion about the economic importance of passing the new legislation, including increasing employment levels and increasing the general welfare of children. But at a press conference following the Jan. 30 cloture vote, several senators and religious leaders gathered to focus on the moral importance of increasing the minimum wage.
“Raising the minimum wage is a moral issue,” said Kennedy, who praised his colleagues for their votes and for “raising a sense of conscience in the U.S. Senate.” Kennedy went on to say that 6 million children will be immediately affected by increasing the minimum wage.
Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) agreed with Kennedy. Harkin echoed a 1966 speech given by Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “A living wage should be the right of all working Americans.” And Brown made reference to corporate CEOs who make $11,000 per hour, while many poor Americans make that same amount in one year. “Those days,” Brown said, “are finally behind us.”
Joining the senators in praising the vote were religious leaders from across the board, including Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners/Call to Renewal. “This is a good vote,” Wallis stated. “Minimum wage is simply the down payment on social justice.”
Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar was also in attendance. As general secretary of the National Council of Churches, representing more than 42 million Christians, Edgar declared that the time is right for people of faith to make their voices heard concerning an increase to the minimum wage. “We think it is time for the faithful majority to stand up and see this as a moral issue,” Edgar said.
Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism also spoke at the press conference. He detailed the original meaning of the word “scandal” as something which insulted God, and tied that to the decade-long lack of increases to the minimum wage. “Our failure to deal with the minimum wage has been a scandal,” he said, “and it has surely been an offense against God.”
There were some lighter moments at the press conference. Speaking about the current wage level and how it meets the needs and expenses of poor families, Rev. Romal Tune of the Washington-based Clergy Strategic Alliances evoked laughter when he said, “It’s like giving a whale a Tic-Tac.”
But Tune was quick to return the conversation to a more serious tone. Beseeching Congress, he added, “Raise the minimum wage and treat the needs of the people as holy.”
Daniel Bennett is an intern with the Faith & Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. He is a junior at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon.