“I’m living out of a spare room at my children’s house.”
“I’m working 70 hours a week…my day starts at 6am…I want to go to college, [but] I don’t have time [and] I can’t afford it.”
“I shouldn’t have to decide: am I going to pay the electric bill or do I pay the heat? I’m a thousand dollars behind in rent now…where is this money going to come from?”
“I’ve worked since I was 15 years old, and I’ve never been fired or asked to leave a job. I can’t work more than 8 hours a day or I’ll lose my day care… If I lose that, I’ll lose access to food assistance. I’m barely staying above water now as it is.”
This is just a sampling of what I’ve heard from low-wage workers I’ve met with recently. I come away from these conversations more convinced than ever that we have to raise the federal minimum wage.
In a nation as wealthy as ours, one based on the belief that anyone can make it if they try, it’s unconscionable that people working full-time are living in poverty and resorting to safety net programs for their very survival. As one young man who works in fast food in Milwaukee told me: “This fight – it’s about the minimum wage, but it’s about respect.”
This is a time of year for plentiful family gatherings. But while many of us are fortunate to enjoy a Thanksgiving of abundance and relaxation, the holidays are too often a source of even greater economic anxiety than usual for those earning at or near the minimum wage.
The American Farm Bureau Federation has estimated that feeding a table of 10 this Thanksgiving will cost $49 on average. But it takes minimum wage workers nearly a full shift to earn that much (and many will have to work on Thanksgiving anyway). For them, putting any meal on the table, let alone a multi-course feast, is a penny-squeezing struggle. So while many Americans will be loosening their belts after helpings of turkey and stuffing, it’s another day of belt-tightening for workers trying to get by on the minimum wage.
But increasing the minimum wage isn’t about holiday giving or charity. This is smart economic policy with universal benefits. In an economy driven by consumer demand, more purchasing power for working families means more sales at businesses large and small. With tens of millions of people heading to stores to start their holiday shopping this weekend, imagine how much more retailers could benefit if low-wage workers had more to spend. I can’t put it any better than one worker who told me: “If they would pay us what we need, we could put money back into the economy and pay for what we need. And that strengthens all of us.”
Minimum wage workers are proud and hardworking. They need and deserve a raise. And that’s not just Tom Perez talking — more than three-quarters of Americans agree, according to a recent Gallup poll. As a matter of social justice and economic common sense, it’s time for Congress to act.
To hear my interview about the minimum wage on National Public Radio this morning, click here.