Workers & Economic Inequality

Graph: Why Democrats Want to Rebrand the Minimum Wage as a Women’s Issue

Post by: Benjamin Landy , on June 18, 2013

When Mitt Romney lost the presidential election last year with a mere 27 percent of the growing Hispanic vote, the Republican Party wasted no time reversing their longstanding position on immigration reform in a baldfaced play for 2016. Now, Democratic strategists are wondering whether they can be persuaded to see other ideological issues in a similarly realpolitik manner.

That's according to the Huffington Post, which reports today that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) met with a number of new House Democrats this month to "brief them on the new 'women's economic agenda'"—their attempt to repackage the President's second-term economic agenda as "a matter of gender equality and family stability."

Whether or not Republicans find this strategy compelling, the connection between labor and gender issues is real, and worth discussing. Currently, there are nearly two women for each man earning the federal minimum wage or less; a major contributing factor to the gender pay gap and one reason why so many single mothers and their children live in poverty.   

What's more, the economic situation for women earning the minimum wage has only gotten worse over the years. Although 19 states have a minimum wage above the level set by Congress, 31 states still rely on the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. That's about a third less than the minimum wage was worth in 1968, when its inflation-adjusted value peaked at just over $10 in 2010 dollars. For a single mom working full-time, earning today's minimum wage ($6.79 in 2010 dollars) means living well below the poverty line.

In his State of the Union address last February, President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2015, and indexing future increases to inflation. He also talked about raising the $2.13 minimum for tipped employees like waiters and waitresses, although he didn't describe specifics. Unfortunately, similar legislation introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA), which would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexed it to inflation (and raised the tipped minimum wage to $3 an hour, with a 95 cent-per-year increase until it reached 70 percent of the regular minimum wage), hasn't made it out of committee, and is considered unlikely to garner a single Republican vote.

One reason for Republicans' hostility toward raising the minimum wage is their belief that higher labor costs at the bottom of the income spectrum tend to hurt either business owners or the customers to whom they pass on costs—both theories that economists have found seriously overblown in practice. Conservative critics also claim that the majority of America's low-wage jobs are held by young, part-time workers like teenagers and college students, who would be better off with a low-paying job than priced out of the labor market. But a quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveals just how inaccurate this stereotype is. Half the workers earning the minimum wage in 2012 were age 25 or older, and nearly two-thirds were women. 

Low income families in particular would benefit from a higher minimum wage. According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015 would raise the wages of about 30 million workers and create approximately 140,000 net new jobs—nearly 90 percent of which would benefit workers over the age of 20. More than one in four beneficiaries would be parents, over a third would be married, and nearly six in ten would be women.

Redefining the minimum wage as an issue of economic justice for low income families, and for struggling mothers in particular, is a good way to put pressure on conservatives who claim to support "family values." (Already we have seen some movement on this front from conservative reformists who advocate "family-friendly" tax reform to promote low and middle-income family formation. A higher minimum wage would also mean fewer government expenditures and greater dignity for workers as individuals.) Whether or not Congressional Republicans can be persuaded by Pelosi and DeLauro's framing, calling attention to these disparities is a good first step.

Tags: minimum wage demographics, minimum wage, gender wage gap, gender pay gap, gender equality

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