State Views: Raise up Wisconsin with higher minimum wage

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Jennifer Epps-Addison
Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Record-high corporate profits and CEO salaries soak up more of the wealth than ever, while worker wages remain flat. Family-supporting jobs have disappeared, replaced by low-wage work. Economists predict that by 2020, almost half of all jobs will pay poverty-level wages.

In response, fast food and retail workers captivated Americans by striking for $15 in more than 100 cities across the country, including several communities in Wisconsin. The growing movement is forcing the issue of economic inequality front and center with a militancy that invokes Dr. Martin Luther King’s final crusade for economic justice during his “Poor People’s Campaign” nearly 45 years ago.

President Obama now calls income inequality “the defining issue of our time.” Pope Francis called inequality “a new tyranny” created by free-market fundamentalism, and called for a moral economy where all workers receive a “living wage” sufficient to support a family. Prominent economists agree that inequality is a serious threat to our economy and that raising wages is the best solution.

Leaders in Wisconsin have heard workers’ demands. This month, state Rep. Cory Mason introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act to raise Wisconsin’s minimum wage to a modest $10.10 while indexing it to inflation. Had the minimum wage kept pace with gains in worker productivity over the preceding decades, it would be roughly $17. At a time when Wisconsin’s median wage lags behind the rest of the country, there is no more urgent action legislators can take to help working families.

It’s our obligation to transform the fast-food, retail and other service jobs that can’t be outsourced into good jobs. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that if Wisconsin raised its minimum wage to $10, nearly 600,000 workers would benefit. These increased wages would inject $645 million into our local economy and create thousands of new jobs. The only question remaining is if $10 is enough.

Opponents assert that higher wages hurt workers, but say nothing about CEOs who triple their compensation. Academic research, summarized by scholar Andrijat Dube, shows that raising the minimum wage has no impact on employment.

Opponents also claim that low-wage jobs are temporary jobs for teenagers, even though 80 percent of Wisconsinites that would benefit from raising the minimum wage are older than 20. Many are parents trying to provide for their children. With more than 70 percent of voters supporting higher minimum wages and 30 states and cities poised to act, corporate interests and their politicians fear that the majority of Americans will decide this issue without them.

Legislators and Gov. Scott Walker should support Rep. Mason’s bill. While $10.10 per hour is not enough for workers to raise themselves and their families out of poverty, passing a significant increase to the minimum wage is the first step toward establishing economic security for working people.

Jennifer Epps-Addison is executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, a community organization that fights for economic justice. Address 1862 W. Fond du Lac Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53205; email her at jennifer@wisconsinjobsnow.org.

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