There are numerous robust economic arguments to make about the economic benefits of a minimum wage increase. The increase will provide a direct benefit to 15 million workers, increase the productivity of our businesses, and strengthen the middleclass and our economy as a whole. But the most powerful argument to be made is by minimum wage workers themselves – mothers, fathers, and caretakers, all describing the emotional toll an unsustainable wage takes on hardworking Americans. Their stories are a testament to the powerful impact a minimum wage increase would have on countless working families in this country. Taking action on the minimum wage is long overdue, and that’s been made perfectly clear as I’ve traveled the country since President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address.
Last week, I began touring the country to hear from workers earning at – or just above – the federal minimum wage. From Philadelphia to Cleveland, I met with workers like Deshanne Collins-Staggers, Kizzie Simmons and Leslie Boyer Bass. As compelling as their stories were, they poignantly underscored the urgent need for a fair wage for working families.
Deshanne is currently living with her family in a Cleveland-area homeless shelter. She does not work, but her husband is a general laborer working at the minimum wage – and even at that wage, pay is deducted for transportation and other expenses. “It doesn’t take rocket science to say that a family needs a living wage to make it,” Deshanne says of the president’s proposal. “It doesn’t take all of these politics to do what is right. It just takes the mindset of the people who are sitting in Washington to change, to say I will do unto my neighbor as I want done unto me.”
Leslie worked in the quality control department at a factory until the company shipped the jobs out of the Cleveland area. Leslie found new work in a grocery store at the minimum wage – even though she had nearly completed advanced certification in her factory before the jobs disappeared – so she “ended up getting what was available because that’s what grownups do.” She supports raising the minimum wage to $9 because “it’s common sense; it makes economic sense; when you go to the grocery store, the cost of milk has gone up more than a quarter.”
Kizzie is a state-tested nursing assistant. She’s a single mother of three, with an oldest daughter who is graduating high school this year. Her daughter has been accepted to the University of Cincinnati, but Kizzie worries about being able to support her decision to go to college; “how am I supposed to tell my daughter that I’m not going to make the tuition payment?” she asked. On top of having to provide for her family’s daily necessities, Kizzie’s landlord raised her rent $300 per month this year, forcing her to make some difficult decisions. “I come to work sometimes broken, but you would never know,” she said. “I don’t show it.”
Sharing stories like the ones I heard in Philadelphia and Cleveland is crucial to the success of President Obama’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 by 2015 and to index it to the cost of living. Tomorrow I’m going to Orlando, Fla., to give more workers a chance to explain why a minimum wage raise would matter so much to them and their families. I will share those stories with you soon, and I will share them with members of Congress and other Washington decision-makers.
I want to hear your stories, too. Post a video, picture or text to Facebook and tag the U.S. Department of Labor.
Seth Harris is the acting secretary of labor.