Invest in American Workers by Raising the Minimum Wage

This election season, the political rhetoric is focusing almost exclusively on job numbers, and whether President Obama or challenger Mitt Romney could create more of them. But little attention is paid to whether those jobs pay enough for American workers to support themselves and their families.

That’s why Congressman Keith Ellison, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus in the House and is known for representing the voiceless in Washington, is pushing legislation to raise the minimum wage — from $7.25 to $9.80 an hour, over the next three years. “The minimum wage today, when you adjust for inflation, is about the same it was in 1956,” Ellison pointed out. “That is a national disgrace!”

“People on minimum wage have the same bills as the rest of us. It’s not the case that only teenagers are on minimum wage. Eight-eight percent of people on minimum wage are 20 years or older.”

“When you want to talk about whether America is going to get stronger and more prosperous, I think increasing the minimum wage to near $10 an hour would go a long way toward helping those living on the margins,” said Kimberly Matt, a single, working mom who lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Both she and Burt Knopff toil for low wages, and struggle to make ends meet as they face a monthly mathematical challenge of paying for rent, food, medicine, utility bills, debt they’ve incurred, and in Matt’s case, providing for her son who is autistic. Both Knopff and Matt work for companies owned by Bain Capital — the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney. Yet the GOP presidential candidate might consider them part of his infamous 47 percent because their low wages force them to rely on some public assistance.

Knopff, a janitor at Burlington Coat Factory, works about 20 hours a week and makes $7.25 per hour. That’s only $580 per month. He currently pays $625 in rent, about $200 a month for groceries, approximately $85 for telephone and Internet service, $90 for his cell phone, $20 in electricity, $60 for health insurance, and around $50 a month for doctors visits and medicine to treat his bipolar disorder. That’s $1,130 in routine monthly bills, or twice what he makes at Burlington Coat Factory. Knopff owes the bank $3,000, a family member $1,000 and his credit card $600. He hasn’t had fulltime work since 2007, on account of his medical condition, and he’s falling further and further into debt every month. If his wage were raised to $9.80 per hour, Knopff would make $784 per month, which would almost cover his monthly expenses.

Kimberly Matt works at a Gymboree store and makes $7.73 an hour. Because of her housing assistance aid, she pays only $130 a month for rent, $40 for heating, $200-300 on groceries and $100-150 a month on gasoline. Lots of intangibles are hurting her too. For instance, she recently had to fork over $160 for her son’s bedding and sheets at Northwestern. Matt says that raising her wages would decrease her need for public assistance, and thus lighten the load on taxpayers.

Matt doesn’t fit the stereotype of the working poor. She completed college and has degrees in business, finance and biology. Her son Forest is 18 and a freshman at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Her youngest son Lincoln is 13 and in seventh grade, but he has autism and struggles. Matt got pregnant when she was in college and went right from college to being on welfare.

“I know he wants things,” Matt says of her son Lincoln. “I feel real bad that I can’t give him the things that I had.”

Is Kimberly Matt representative of a larger trend in America where the young people of today have fewer opportunities and less material wealth than their parents did?

“We had an era of prosperity in the ’50s and ’60s because of safety nets and because the minimum wage was relatively high,” Matt offered a history lesson. “There were still rich people then, but people were able to be engaged and feed back into the economy.”

“Romney said that 47 percent of Americans have victim consciousness. I don’t see myself as a victim. I see myself as trying to make the best out of whatever circumstances have befallen me. If he sees half of America as victims, what are the other half, perpetrators?

“We need to say that if the CEOs get a raise, then everybody else should get one too,” offered Ellison. “We need to make sure that this economy works for everyone.”

While critics of raising the federal minimum wage insinuate that it would hurt employers’ pocketbooks, a new report by the Economic Policy Institute shows the opposite. Boosting wages to $9.80 an hour would benefit 315,000 low-wage Minnesota workers and lead to 1,600 new jobs in Minnesota. Female workers would benefit disproportionally from the increase.

“If we had a fair minimum wage, it would actually put more people to work, because we’d have more money to spend, and we spend it, then the companies would make more money, and they could hire more people,” explained Ellison.

“We’re just people, and we’re worth investing in,” said Matt. “My older son was raised in poverty, and he’s going to a top university. We invest in people the same way we invest in business. We deserve that investment.”

Jacob Wheeler

In addition to shooting videos for The UpTake, Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at the progressive political magazine In These Times, publishes the Glen Arbor Sun in his native Michigan, and authored "Between Light and Shadow," a recent book about the Guatemalan adoption industry. Wheeler's stories have appeared in such magazines as the Utne Reader, Earth Island Journal, Rotarian and Teaching Tolerance magazine, and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle and Christian Science Monitor. He speaks fluent Spanish, German and Danish.

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