Why Today Is a Sad Milestone for Minimum-Wage Workers

Why Today Is a Sad Milestone for Minimum-Wage Workers

Why Today Is a Sad Milestone for Minimum-Wage Workers

It took 41 days for federal minimum-wage workers to catch up to what they made in 2009.


Republicans in Congress can’t say enough about how their tax-cut legislation is supposedly helping workers. House Speaker Paul Ryan touted the tax bill as a long-awaited help for “hardworking Americans who have been left behind for too long,” and Ryan has been everywhere recently highlighting the sporadic, one-time bonuses that some corporations are handing to employees.

This has always been a ludicrous sales pitch, given that shareholders are grabbing 30 times what those bonuses amount to in share buybacks, and that the clear intent of the legislation was to lower tax rates on corporations and the very wealthy. But March 1 is a good day to reflect on how little Republicans in Congress truly care about the “left-behind” workers—because, up until Thursday, workers earning the federal minimum wage have essentially been working for free compared with what they made in 2009, which was the last time Congress raised its minimum wage.

According to a new analysis by the Center for American Progress, a worker earning $7.25 per hour this year needs to work 41 extra days just to make the same amount as he or she would have made at the same wage back in 2009, once inflation has been factored in. March 1 is the 41st day of the year, and it’s over a week later than “Minimum Wage Workers’ Equal Pay Day” last year, which occurred on February 21.

Democrats at various points in recent years have introduced bills to raise the federal minimum wage and index it to inflation; congressional Democrats are now backing the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2024 and peg it to inflation thereafter. It’s extremely doubtful that Ryan or Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will ever allow a vote on that bill.

“President Trump and his congressional allies have bent over backwards to deliver massive tax giveaways to the wealthiest—yet congressional Republicans have refused to lift a finger in nearly nine years to raise the pay of America’s lowest-paid workers,” said Rachel West, director of poverty research at the Center for American Progress. “If Trump and congressional Republicans were sincere about their repeated promises to help working families, they wouldn’t be proposing massive cuts to programs like Medicaid and nutrition assistance. Instead, they’d be championing a higher minimum wage to ensure that wages are enough to make ends meet.”

CAP calculated that the $7.25-per-hour worker has lost $2,370 in purchasing power since 2009 thanks to the flat-lined minimum wage, which outstrips all the but the most fantastical claims about what the tax legislation did for workers. In fact, as West notes, the January wage bump that Trump heralded as a great success was mainly due to state-level minimum-wage increases that went into effect on the first of the month.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have increased their minimum wages beyond the federal minimum, but millions of workers still earn within 25 cents of the federal minimum. Contrary to conservative-media caricatures, these are not just teenage kids clearing tables—the CBO estimated in 2013 that three-quarters of minimum-wage workers were over 20 years old.

If Ryan and his Republican allies are truly interested in giving millions of low-wage workers a bonus that will last beyond this year, they can act to raise the wage. Every year they don’t increases the number of days federal minimum-wage workers are laboring essentially for free.

But we know that they probably won’t, and that Trump wouldn’t sign it anyway—after all, when he was running for president, Trump said he believed “our wages are too high” and that “we cannot [raise the minimum wage] if we are going to compete with the rest of the world, we just can’t do it.”

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