Congress is on the verge of raising the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade, but many states have already taken further steps to ensure that their workers won't get left behind by inflation. As of the beginning of this year, twenty-nine states have higher minimum wage requirements than the federal law. Most of the other states have tied their minimum wage to the federal level. Only one state has a minimum wage lower than $5.15 an hour.
In Kansas, workers not covered by the federal law -- about 19,000 people -- are subject to a minimum wage of $2.65 per hour. A bill to raise the state minimum to the federal minimum was rejected this week. Geraldine Flaherty, who was my representative when I lived in Wichita, called the defeat a "crime against humanity," adding, "Kansans deserve better."
But legislators from Johnson County, one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, disagreed:
“This is one of the greatest superstitions of all, that if you raise the minimum wage you are doing anybody any favors,” said state Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe.
Rep. Benjamin Hodge, R-Overland Park, argued against the increase saying the state should avoid “European-style socialist bills.”
On one level, Rep. Kiegerl is right. Raising a person's annual income from $5500 to $10,700 is not doing them a favor. It's still not nearly enough to keep a family out of poverty.
Some people would argue that, if minimum wage earners wanted to make more, they should get an education or learn new skills. But such thinking is delusional at best. It's true that some individuals may be able to improve their economic status by getting new skills or education, but they can only do so if others fail to keep pace.
This is the point at which the debate usually goes off course: Those who oppose regular increases in the minimum wage refuse to look at the bigger picture. If everyone in the nation had a postgraduate degree and knew how to perform neurosurgery and could program the guidance system of a satellite, we as a society would still have a need for people to perform menial work.
Raising the minimum wage is a moral issue. It is a matter of society agreeing that work -- all work -- is valuable. If we don't have someone to clean the bathrooms at our workplace, to stock the shelves in the grocery store, or to wash our dishes at the restaurant, we won't survive long as a society.
That's why raising the state minimum to the federal level -- even the new federal level that Congress is considering -- would not be enough. A minimum wage that does not keep a family out of poverty is a disgrace, especially for a nation wealthier than any other that has ever existed.
If we can't find a way to ensure a living wage for full time work, then we don't deserve to survive long as a society.