Jewish Labor Committee leaders explain why the current federal minimum wage isn't enough to keep families above the poverty line.
The Torah provides a moral imperative: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” In today’s economic environment, that means that at the very least we should support a just minimum wage — a wage that will enable working people to support their families.
We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign on the federal level, in Philadelphia and wherever state and local governments attempt to act while Congress fails to do its part.
The current federal minimum isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, full-time minimum wage workers make $15,080 a year. Even in a family with two earners, household income hovers at the poverty level.
Partly because of the latest economic downturn, more low-wage workers today aren’t just teens earning money for movie tickets — more are supporting their families and are older and better educated than ever.
At the same time, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has plummeted. For the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power today that it had in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour.
American Jews should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors, who could earn only poverty wages when they first arrived here. The challenges confronting those in minimum-wage jobs today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices and serve our fast food. The vast majority work multiple jobs to support their families and still struggle, faced with terrible choices over which bills to pay — rent or heat, groceries or medicine — that none among us should be forced to make.
As a comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute notes, an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would impact about 30 million workers who would receive more than $51 billion in additional wages, increase gross domestic product by $32.6 billion and create a net gain of 140,000 new jobs (not kill jobs as some claim). This would be an important step in closing the widening income gap.
So why do so many in business continue to stymie attempts to lift minimum-wage workers out of poverty? Essentially, because they can. In a weak economy with so many unemployed, companies can use their enhanced bargaining power to cut wages, benefits and hours.
Not all the blame lies with those who employ low-wage workers. Too often, we as consumers fail to make the connection between low prices and widespread poverty. Until Congress raises the federal minimum wage, states and cities can fill some of the gap by raising their minimum wages. At least 22 states have done this already, including New Jersey.
At the annual Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Atlanta this March, delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of increasing the minimum wage, which the JLC co-sponsored. It called for: educating about how the current minimum is too low to keep people out of poverty; advocating for an increase in federal, state and local minimum wages; and encouraging Jewish groups to institute a $10.10 minimum wage.
If we are to provide a measure of justice to the lowest-paid among us, we have to support an increase in the minimum wage.
For its part, the local Jewish Labor Committee is working with the Fight for $15 campaign. This spring, we joined in marching from the McDonald’s at Broad and Girard to the one at Broad and Arch on behalf of fast food workers who can’t make ends meet on $7.25 an hour. And we have been part of a Philadelphia coalition for paid sick days.
We are proud to be part of this campaign and encourage the wider community to join. It’s the right and just thing to do.
Stuart Appelbaum is president of both the Jewish Labor Committee and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Lynne Fox is chair of the local JLC, manager of the Philadelphia Joint Board and international vice president of Workers United.