Today marks the eighth anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase—and serves as a rallying cry in the fight for a much-needed raise for low-wage workers across the country.
Over 20 million workers in 21 states are still earning an outdated and unlivable minimum wage of $7.50 an hour, the current federal standard. 40 percent of workers in those 21 states, as well as 30 percent of workers nationally, earn wages that leave them below the poverty line.
The minimum wage is defined as a “critical labor standard meant to ensure a fair wage for this country’s lowest paid workers”—but the federal minimum wage, as it stands, isn’t even close to fair. “With the federal minimum wage stuck now for eight years at a poverty-level of $7.25 per hour,” executive director of NELP Christine Owens said in a statement, “it is falling far short of that critical role. Instead, at such an appallingly low wage level, it’s being used as a weight to suppress workers’ wages.”
Women make up a majority of low-wage earners, and many of them are the heads of their households. A feature on the fight for better wages being waged by female fast-food employees across the country in the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. found that gender stratification “pervades all levels of the [fast-food] industry,” with women often funneled into and stuck in lower-paying jobs while men claimed management positions. The feminization of poverty in the U.S.—wherein women are pushed into lower-paying positions and low-wage fields due to their gender—may have actually worsened during the economic recovery.
After years of sustained activism by groups like Fight for 15, lawmakers are once again attempting to mandate a living wage for all workers. The Raise the Wage Act of 2017 has been introduced in the House and Senate to guarantee a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour by 2024, as well as put in place an automatic adjustment each year afterward based on median wage growth. If signed into law, more than 41 million workers in the U.S. would finally receive the wage increases they desperately need to support themselves and their families.
Since it was first implemented in 1938, the federal minimum wage has been adjusted only nine times—from a mere 25 cents an hour in 1938 to the current $7.25. Though the increases occur irregularly, the cost of living consistently rises every year—meaning that every year that the minimum wage stagnates, its purchasing power decreases, forcing low-wage workers to work longer hours or take on additional employment just to stay afloat. The current federal minimum wage is worth 10 percent less now than when it was last raised in 2009, and parents earning the minimum wage are unable to earn past the federal poverty line even with full-time jobs.
Although Congress has yet to raise the federal minimum wage, numerous states, as well as 40 cities and counties across the country, have taken the issue into their own hands. Seven states and the District of Columbia currently have minimum wages of $10 or more, and several states also have minimum wages between $12 and $15. On January 1st, 19 states increased their minimum wage, providing $4.2 billion in additional wages to over 4.3 million workers—the largest number of states ever to increase their minimum wages without an increase in the federal minimum wage.