A Senate committee took up discussion of income inequality during a hearing this week focused on how to improve the lives of working families. But unfortunately, not everyone agreed that Capitol Hill needed to lend a hand to lift wages.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told those gathered at the March 12 hearing that a solution is simple and long overdue. “No one who works full time in our society ought to live in poverty,” he said. “And supplementing that with welfare, EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), food stamps, TANF, child care is not the answer. The answer is raising the minimum wage.”
Labor Department Secretary Tom Perez agreed. He noted Congress approved the Fair Labor Standards Act 75 years ago to ensure that those who worked full time would at a minimum be able to support their families with the basics. But now those at the bottom of the pay scale can’t get that done. Low-wage earners need a raise, he said.
Secretary Perez stated many are forced “to make choices, a gallon of milk versus a gallon of gas, pay the electric bill or get the medicine for your child. Their lives are filled with anxiety and struggle, and they have immense pride and self-respect. They don’t want a handout; they just want their hard work rewarded with a fair wage.”
Alicia McCrary, a single mother of four from Northwood, Iowa, knows this first hand. She works 20 to 25 hours a week in her job at a fast-food restaurant making $7.65 an hour and receives TANF and food assistance benefits. But it’s a challenge to makes ends meet, she told lawmakers.
“I hope someday soon I will be able to work more hours and earn more money so I can continue to improve my life and help my boys grow up to be healthy, happy young men,” she said. “If you could move forward with increasing the minimum wage, my family would be more successful in reaching our goal of a better life.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced that is a solution to the problem. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the committee’s ranking member, called a mandated salary increase for low-income workers a “stale, bankrupt” idea that would eliminate some 500,000 jobs. But there has never been any proof that raising the minimum wage results in job loss. In fact, that argument has been debunked in Washington State.
Higher wages is a winner not only for those getting paid more, but for the economy as a whole. Because if workers have more to spend, that means businesses are going to be the recipient of those funds. That is the big picture Congress should be focused on.