Senate Democrats fell only four votes short of the super-majority 60 votes they needed to bring up the proposed minimum wage hike. They could have had half the number of Republicans they needed if Wyoming’s U.S. Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso would have broken with tradition and voted for something to actually help their constituents and the state’s economy.
But no, Enzi and Barrasso did what they always do, which is argue that the free market is king and should be allowed to operate without government interference in anything, including setting wages. They claim if only we’d get out of free enterprise’s way, every American who is willing to work hard (and be here legally) would have a great-paying job.
A bipartisan Congress established the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 – having determined that letting businesses dole out whatever they wanted to pay their workers resulted in hordes of employees receiving miserable, unlivable wages up to and through the Great Depression.
On the Senate floor prior to the vote, Enzi waxed nostalgic over receiving the minimum wage at one of his first jobs, as a stock boy at a shoe store. But young Enzi had an advantage likely none of the other workers cashing their small checks had – the knowledge he could eventually take over the family business. He would soon be leaving the minimum-wage world far, far behind – so far, in fact, that he can’t even vaguely remember what it looked like. And he never even knew what it actually felt like to rely on those wages to live, as so many workers and their families in Wyoming must now.
Enzi also complained to his fellow senators that a lot of the kids who get these minimum-wage jobs don’t really earn them, because they often “don’t know how to interrupt their texting to wait on a customer.”
What’s the matter, Mike – did you get a cold Big Mac once? Does that mean everyone in America who makes minimum wage has to pay for it?
The senator doesn’t understand it’s not just fresh-faced teens working for minimum wage, it’s also adults with families who can’t get any other jobs.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for Barrasso told the Casper Star-Tribune her boss “believes the best way to increase Americans’ wages across the board is to remove government barriers to creating better job opportunities and greater economic growth.”
In other words, Wyoming’s far-from-dynamic duo chose to perpetuate the GOP/industry myth that an increase in the minimum wage is unquestionably bad for business and will reduce the number of jobs. The vast majority of economists say that’s not true, but like many of the Republicans in Congress say, the notion has been repeated so many times, people firmly believe it.
And why not? If businesses are required to pay their workers more, the theory goes, it will reduce the number of people they can employ and force them to raise their prices to compete. So American workers and consumers both lose.
Throw in the apocalyptic tones Republicans save for any idea supported by President Barack Obama – even their own – and it’s easy to see why some voters will swear that any hike in the minimum wage will absolutely destroy our economy.
But guess what? In the real world, it hasn’t worked that way at all. In fact, all of the modest increases in the minimum wage Congress approved in the past have resulted in either steady or slight growth in employment, and a period of prosperity.
It’s taken some landmark studies along the way, but now most economists have jettisoned the old theory of minimum-wage increases being negative, and adopted the position that when it is raised periodically, everyone benefits – even businesses.
If the proposed hike from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 is approved, it will raise the income of more than 21 million American workers (including 35,000 in Wyoming). Low-income people aren’t like bankers and CEOs of major corporations. They don’t stash their extra money in offshore accounts, they spend it – largely at local businesses.
It’s true that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the proposed increase would result in 500,000 fewer jobs, but that prediction doesn’t take into account the overall benefits to the economy having all that extra money in circulation will bring.
What’s happened previously is the benefits of raising the minimum wage far outweigh any negatives by a large margin – and when economists have looked at the overall picture, many businesses do what they profess to in times of prosperity: create more jobs.
In 1992, economists had the opportunity to see if the theory that a minimum wage hike would tank the economy holds water. They examined what happened to fast-food restaurants in cities near the border of two adjacent states – Pennsylvania and New Jersey – when the latter raised its minimum wage to $5.05 an hour, and Pennsylvania’s remained at $4.25 an hour.
What they discovered knocked conventional wisdom on its butt. Instead of losing jobs, New Jersey actually posted a small gain, while the hamburger-slingers there had more money in their pockets.
But that’s only one small example, minimum wage opponents argued. So three economists duplicated the study in a broad range of counties throughout the country between 1990 and 2006, and issued a 2010 report that said the same thing happened everywhere else they examined.
Republican politicians simply ignored the verifiable data and kept calling proposed minimum wage increases bad for the economy. You’ve probably heard the same thing from your mother-in-law, the person who fixes your car and the one who cuts your hair (all Fox News watchers, natch): “It’s a job-killer.”
It’s a lie, but the fact it’s so widespread allows senators like Enzi and Barrasso to muddy the waters and make it seem perfectly plausible to many constituents, who will wind up voting against their own self-interests if they keep accepting this fiction as fact.
Have you ever noticed when officials know their own position has holes you could drive a truck through, they just change the subject? Here’s a prime example: Enzi told his fellow senators that instead of increasing the minimum wage, they should be promoting tax reform, growing U.S. exports and approving the Keystone XL Pipeline.
All three of Enzi’s examples would likely boost corporations’ profits, not workers’ wages.
Here’s another way Republicans have played fast and loose with the facts on the minimum wage issue.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) , a non-partisan think tank, released a letter signed by 600 of the nation’s top economists, including several Nobel Prize winners, stating that raising the minimum wage would boost the economy and is not a jobs killer. (Unlike the recent climate change controversy in Wyoming schools, let’s assume that having a Nobel Prize means that you know stuff.)
Another conservative group released its own letter signed by economists who believe exactly the opposite. That just shows how divided economists are on the issue, right?
No. With a little digging, the EPI and several news organizations discovered that the conservative effort was funded by the NRA.
No, not the gun guys – how could you even think something so silly? It was the National Restaurant Association, which lobbies to keep wages for its workers as low as possible. In the case of the industry, the tipped workers they employ receive a federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. The employer is supposed to make up the difference between what they really get in tips if it falls below the $7.25 an hour minimum wage for everyone else.
It’s such a screwed-up system, it should be no surprise that many tipped workers have to fight with their employers to get what is owed to them. Everyone knows, of course, that troublesome employees aren’t likely to be employed for long.
The tipped workers’ minimum wage has stayed at $2.13 an hour since 1991. Wyoming could increase it on its own, as other states did, but hasn’t. Anyone else notice the prices restaurants charge have gone up a bit in the past 23 years?
Wait staff at restaurants are three times as likely to live in poverty as other low-wage earners. How can an industry justify paying millions of dollars to lobbyists to keep a system so morally bankrupt?
Republicans like Enzi and Barrasso blame Democrats for “playing politics” with the minimum-wage issue in election years. Why wouldn’t they? It’s true. The only thing some Democrats have to apologize for is not using the GOP’s disgraceful opposition to raising the minimum wage to bash them over the head a little more forcefully.
In addition to simply being the right thing to do to help lift people out of poverty when income inequality has grown to huge proportions, Democrats know even in this ultra-red state, they have the people on their side. A poll commissioned by the Wyoming Democratic Party in April showed 69 percent support a minimum-wage increase.
The Democrats win the economic, moral and political arguments hands down on this issue. “Wyoming families deserve a chance to live the American dream,” said Wyoming State Democratic Chairman Pete Gosar. “In this tough economy, people across our state are struggling on a daily basis to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Raising the minimum wage allows hard-working Wyomingites to spend their higher wages in local businesses — stimulating Wyoming’s economy.”
Maybe someone needs to tell Enzi that with the boost in income, more people will buy shoes and hire accountants. Now that’s something he might be able to understand.