As a worker, and a union leader, I’ve seen how hard work can pay off for families across this state. Landing a good job provides a family with a real shot at the American dream: it enables them to pay the bills, find housing, raise their children — and it offers a sense of accomplishment.
But I worry, these days, that too many people are in jobs that don’t pay enough to enable them to get ahead — or even get by. Indeed, we’re facing a growing crisis in the United States where millions of workers are earning wages so low that they can’t pay the bills or find housing.
It’s just simple math. For ten years, the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour. In that decade, food prices have increased 25 percent, while the wage has stayed flat. Families are working harder than ever but losing ground fast.
According to new analysis by Oxfam America and the Economic Policy Institute, over half a million people in Iowa would benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. That amounts to over a third of our workforce. And across the nation, nearly 40 million workers would benefit. And these are not teenagers working summer jobs. In Iowa, 86 percent of low-wage workers are 20 years and older, with a significant number supporting households with dependent children or elderly parents.
And yet, here we are in 2019, looking at another attempt in Congress to increase the federal minimum wage through the Raise the Wage Act of 2019 — and anticipating that it will not pass the Senate.
Right now, Republican U.S. senators are standing between these workers and a raise in the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. Count our Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley among them. I appreciate how these senators have worked for years on behalf of Iowa families. But that is precisely is why their lack of support for the Raise the Wage Act is so disappointing.
In Iowa, we feel this particularly acutely. Our minimum wage, which has been stuck at the federal rate of $7.25 for a decade, puts a family of two (one adult and one child) below the official federal poverty line. To cover actual expenses, it’s estimated a worker with a child would have to earn $23.35 an hour, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Calculator. Workers and communities know that wages need to be raised. In fact, Johnson County and Polk County approved increases in local minimum wages, but the state pre-empted the ordinances.
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Keeping the minimum wage unnaturally low hurts our working families — and it’s especially unnecessary at a time when the economy is thriving.
It hurts hardworking people of color most of all. In Iowa, nearly two thirds of all working black and Latina women would benefit from the raise to $15 by 2024. Over half of all Latino workers, and 42 percent of all black workers would benefit. These are shocking statistics — low wages trap families in a vicious cycle where it gets harder every year to save for education or retirement or a home. Raising the wage would be one step toward addressing long-standing inequities, and giving everyone willing to work hard a real shot.
The fact is, our economy is skewed to reward the wealthiest at the expense of workers. If the minimum wage really reflected increases in productivity over the past few decades, it would be over $20 today. I encourage Congress to raise the wage — but I also believe we need to make it easier for workers to form unions so we can bargain, together, for higher wages and safer working conditions.
It’s difficult to see why GOP senators are so dug in that they can’t comprehend the value of raising the wage. The rest of us can see it clearly: it’s time to raise the wage.
• Cathy Glasson of Coralville is a nurse, president of SEIU Local 199 and a former Democratic candidate for governor.