Higher minimum wage won’t eliminate working poor

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On July 24, the federal minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour, the first increase in 10 years.

Workers celebrated the first increase in the federal minimum wage in 10 years Tuesday, but said it still won’t be enough to bring every family out of poverty.

On July 24, the federal minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $5.85 an hour, with subsequent increases to $6.55 in 2008 and $7.25 in 2009. Minimum wage workers in Minnesota and 28 other states won’t see an immediate increase because their pay is already $1 more than the federal minimum, but they will enjoy increases in future years.

Even so, the minimum wage remains far below what it should be – and doesn’t do anything to address rising health insurance and other costs, advocates said Tuesday at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Could you work for minimum wage?
After 10 years of waiting for an increase in the federal minimum wage, low-wage workers celebrated Tuesday. But some in Corporate America continue their opposition to any floor underneath wages. Patricia McLane Wingo has a question for them.
“Would they like to live at that wage?” she asked. “Would they be able to take care of their homes and their families – and have decent health care?”

Wingo, the co-chair of ACORN in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, was among those who celebrated at the state Capitol Tuesday when federal legislation raising the minimum wage took effect.

She was joined by other ACORN members who are current or former minimum-wage earners. They all said the increase to $7.25 by 2009 will help, but certainly won’t ease their financial burdens.

They also worry about Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s pledge that he won’t sign any increases in the state minimum wage unless lawmakers enact a “tip penalty” allowing employers to pay waitresses, bartenders and other tipped workers less than the minimum.

Pawlenty’s comments hit a nerve for Emily Pflugi, a former waitress.

“Tipping has declined so much” because of changes in the economy, she said. “There’s no guarantee” when pay is dependent on tips.

Waitresses do a lot more than serve food and collect tips from customers, she noted. “It’s hard work. It’s a lot of physical labor.”

Thomas Fleur earned minimum wage when he was employed as a security guard at an apartment building.

“It’s a lot of responsibility for $6 an hour and no health insurance whatsoever,” he said. Interestingly, Fleur was finally able to boost his pay when he got a new position protecting product shipments – not people.

Billie Jean Campbell brought her five-year-old daughter, also named Billie Jean, to Tuesday’s celebratory news conference. She needs a higher wage to be able to buy school clothes, books and supplies, so her daughter can have a bright future, Campbell said.

“The living wage should be higher,” she said. “It’s for the kids.”

For the last 10 years, American workers earning the minimum wage made $10,712 annually – “nearly $6,000 below the poverty level for a family of three,” said John Noonan of Americans United for Change, the group that organized the celebratory news conference. Similar events were held in 35 states and Washington, D.C.

Noonan said nearly 13 million Americans are expected to benefit from the increase.

Eliot Seide addresses minimum wage news conference
“Everyone who puts in an honest day’s work should receive a fair day’s pay,” declared Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, at a news conference Tuesday celebrating the increase in the federal minimum wage. While the increase to $7.25 over the next two years will help, it won’t eliminate the vast numbers of working poor.

“It’s a long overdue first step,” said Eliot Seide, executive director of AFSCME Council 5. “But someone who earns $5.85 an hour brings home only $12,168. That person is still poor.”

If the minimum wage was adjusted for inflation, it would be $9.27 an hour today, said Kris Jacobs, director of the JOBS NOW Coalition. And that wage would still not be enough for many people to make ends meet, according to the organization’s annual “Job Gap” study.

Many of the working poor, she noted, live in greater Minnesota, where more than one out of four jobs pay less than $9.27 per hour.

Advocates praised members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation, including first-time Congressmen Keith Ellison and Tim Walz, for their votes in support of the higher minimum wage.

Brian Elliott, a staff member representing Ellison, said the legislation is only a start. The congressman will continue to work on legislation strengthening workers’ right to organize and improve their standard of living.

“What we need is a shared prosperity,” Elliott said.

Patricia Wingo addresses minimum wage news conference
“There is no middle class anymore – only rich and poor,” said Patricia McLane Wingo, co-chair of ACORN in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, at a state Capitol news conference celebrating the increase in the federal minimum wage.

Patricia Wingo, co-chair of ACORN in the Frogtown neighborhood, said her organization’s members will benefit from the wage increase, but want to see more.

“There is no middle class anymore – only rich and poor,” she declared. Families are struggling with higher health care costs and food and gas prices. They work longer hours and spend less time with their families, she said.

“We can eliminate poverty in a generation by lifting the minimum wage to a livable wage,” said Seide. “We can eliminate the phrase ‘working poor.’ Everyone who puts in an honest day’s work should receive a fair day’s pay. Full-time workers should earn enough to feed, clothe and shelter their families. We are the richest nation on the face of the planet and we can do better.”