Reasonable people may differ on the precise definition of a living wage. But the consensus is that $7.25 an hour does not come close to the standard for assuring that someone who works full time can earn enough to live above the poverty line.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s administration has formally rejected that consensus view and is now arguing that $7.25 an hour is a living wage.
Walker disdain for the minimum wage is well established. When a Wisconsin reporter asked the governor this week to clarify his stance with regard to setting a base wage, he explained, "I don't think it serves a purpose."
Walker avows that he is not currently angling to repeal Wisconsin's $7.25 an hour wage rate. But raise it? No way. Indeed, it is now the policy of his administration to say that workers earning that wage are taking home a "sufficent" amount of money to get by.
As with so many economic issues, the virulently anti-labor governor—who is seeking re-election this year and preparing for a 2016 Republican presidential run—is wrong on the facts. He is also at odds with the long-held values of Wisconsin, a state that once led the nation is establishing protections for low-wage workers.
Let’s begin with the facts:
In his groundbreaking book, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society, the historian Lawrence Glickman explains a living wage as “a wage level that offers workers the ability to support families, to maintain self-respect, and to have both the means and the leisure to participate in the civic life of the nation.”
According to the “Harvard Living Wage Fact Sheet,” “Although living wage standards do, by definition, vary by region, they are all considerably higher than the federal minimum wage.” The fact sheet continues, “This is because the minimum wage does not begin to meet the needs of working people or families anywhere in the country: in fact, it puts a parent with one child below the federal poverty line. A living wage aims to correct this by establishing, at a local level, a more reasonable minimum wage.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Living Wage Calculator” allows Americans to calculate what that might mean in cities, villages and towns across the United States. In Milwaukee, for instance, the living wage for a single working adult is $9.48 an hour, while the family-friendly living wage—for a single working parent with a child—is $20.85 an hour. In Racine, it’s $8.75 an hour for a working adult and $19.97 an hour for a working parent with a child. In Madison, it’s 9.54 an hour for a working adult and $21.17 an hour for a working parent with a child.
The numbers may vary a bit, but the pattern is clear. And officials and voters in states across the country have begun to respond by hiking minimum-wage rates. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will vote this fall on proposals for significant wage increases, and Illinois will vote on an advisory measure on the issue. Additionally, Democratic and Republican candidates in this year’s mid-term elections are expressing support for legislative remedies.
But don’t count Scott Walker in their number.
As Wisconsin’s governor, Walker is uniquely positioned among all governors in the nation to address the concerns of low-wage workers. Unlike most other states, where governors have little or no authority to help low-wage workers, Wisconsin governors can act.
A century ago, when Wisconsin served as the nation’s “laboratory of democracy,” the state’s progressive leaders enacted legislation to address the issue. Wisconsin Statute Sec. 104.02 declares, “Every wage paid or agreed to be paid by any employer to any employee (except in narrowly-defined circumstances for student learners and workers in sheltered workshops) shall be not less than a living wage.”
According to the law, when a governor’s administration receives “a verified complaint of any person setting forth that the wages paid to any employee in any occupation are not sufficient to enable the employee to maintain himself or herself under conditions consistent with his or her welfare,” the complaint must be investigated within twenty days and a determination must be made on “whether there is reasonable cause to believe that the wage paid to any employee is not a living wage.”
If there is a finding “that there is reasonable cause to believe that the wages paid to any employee are not a living wage,” the governor can move to address the issue. A wage council selected to fairly represent employers, employees and the public can be charged with setting a living wage for all workers in the class of employees who are not being adequately compensated.
This is the law. It is also the standard that Wisconsin has lived by since 1913, a standard that recognizes fair compensation for workers is good for the state’s economy and for the state’s democracy. When workers earn a living wage, they are freer to participate more easily and more fully in society.
Support for a living wage was always understood by Wisconsin leaders as being about more than money. It was essential to creating a civil, fair and functional society. That’s why Republicans initiated the state’s living-wage law a century ago, and why Republican and Democratic governors have embraced the law practically and idealistically.
Wisconsin’s living-wage law is not a historical relic. As state Representative Chris Taylor’s office notes, “Recent Democratic and Republican Governors, including Governor Jim Doyle and Tommy Thompson, used their authority under Wisconsin law to increase wages.” And groups such as the Raise Wisconsin coalition of community and labor groups and Wisconsin Jobs Now! have focused on the option as a vehicle to quickly and effectively begin responding to income inequality.
Yet now Scott Walker and his appointees are refusing to take the law seriously.
When a legitimate complaint was presented to Walker’s administration last month, it was quickly rejected—with scant review and an absurd assertion that Wisconsin’s living-wage standard is being met.
Worse yet, when the governor was asked about the issue in the first gubernatorial debate last Friday, he avoided responding to the issue. Pressed a second time by the panelist who had asked the initial question, Walker again refused to address the living-wage law or issues relating to it. He did not even acknowledge what his own administration had just done.
There are many matters on which Scott Walker has broken faith with Wisconsin. But few are so chilling, so deeply unsettling, as his disregard for the condition of the Wisconsinites who work full-time but live in poverty.
This is about much more than politics; Republicans and Democrats have historically respected Wisconsin’s living-wage standard, and it has served the state and its citizens well. Walker’s disregard for it marks him as a political careerist who is more interested in pleasing billionaire campaign donors from Kansas and New York than keeping his oath to “faithfully and impartially discharge the duties” of his position.