The bins set up by employees of a Walmart store in Canton to collect holiday food for needy fellow workers symbolize to some Americans the nation’s growing economic inequality. A modest, reasonable increase in the federal minimum wage would help ease such disparities.
Walmart says the food bins show how the company’s 1.3 million U.S. employees rally around each other in hard times. But many of the nation’s large retailers and other big employers have effectively undone what Henry Ford started a century ago, when he doubled his workers’ wages and helped create a broad middle class that could afford to buy his cars.
The business model of part-time, low-wage, few-benefits jobs has helped to transform the American economy, shrink the middle class, and increase the number of working poor to more than 10 million employees during the Great Recession.
In a speech this week, President Obama said he wants to spend much of the rest of his term working to reduce the gap between rich and poor Americans. He cited his support for a bill before the Democratic-majority Senate that would increase the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 over two years, then index that wage to inflation.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), a sponsor of the bill, says his colleagues hope to vote on the measure before Christmas. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) says chances for a hike in the minimum wage are slim in the GOP-controlled House this year, but might improve in 2014, an election year.
Momentum is building for a higher minimum wage. In cities including Detroit, fast-food workers protested again this week against their low wages.
Their demand for a $15 hourly wage is unrealistic anytime soon. But a Gallup poll conducted last month suggests that three out of four Americans support an immediate increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
The federal minimum wage last rose in 2009. Ohio’s minimum wage is $7.85.
Some economists argue that raising the minimum wage would discourage employers from hiring entry-level workers, including young people seeking their first jobs. But a large number of workers now must support families on minimum-wage jobs. Increasing that wage would boost local spending and benefit hard-pressed communities such as Toledo.
A full-time worker at the federal minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. If that worker is a single parent, his or her household income falls below the federal poverty level of $15,130 for a family of two.
Congress needs to help the lowest-paid Americans, and the economy as a whole, by raising the minimum wage.