Respect all work – and grow the economy, too: raise the minimum wage

Marilyn Watkins, EOI Policy Director

Marilyn Watkins, EOI Policy Director

Come January, Washington’s minimum wage will go up 15 cents an hour to $9.47. That’s supposed to be enough to make up for inflation – all of $6.00 a week if you’re lucky enough to get a full-time schedule at that low wage job.

Meanwhile, income inequality continues to grow. So much income is now concentrated in the top 1% of Americans that it’s threatening our whole economy. It’s time to boost our state minimum wage.

According to the most recent Census Bureau data, last year 50,000 people in Washington worked full-time for the full year and still lived below the poverty level. That figure includes 7% of all women household heads who worked full time. Another 264,500 people in poverty held jobs, but only managed part-time schedules. Four in 10 single moms and their kids in our state lived in poverty.

Back in 1998, when Washington voters endorsed an annual cost of living adjustment to our state minimum wage, job growth was strong across the U.S. The typical income of working families was rising faster than the rate of inflation each year, and competition for workers was intense enough to lift wages even at the bottom of the earnings spectrum.

But since 2000, the U.S. has suffered two major recessions with only sluggish recoveries. It’s now been six years since the captains of finance tanked the world economy, and while the super wealthy are richer than ever, incomes for most of us have yet to recover. Median annual household income in Washington state went up only $37 above inflation in 2013, and was still $3,000 below the yearly income of the typical household in 2009.

Thirty plus years of trickledown economics hasn’t worked. Income inequality has soared to the point that it’s undermining economic stability and job growth, and aggravating state revenue problems.

We need to return to policies that grow our economy from the bottom up and middle out.

All of us rely on those people who toil away at jobs that pay minimum wage (or not much more), often without basic benefits like paid sick leave. They are childcare teachers, baristas, retail clerks, restaurant workers, home care aids. Raising their pay would allow them all to spend a little bit more in local businesses, creating more new jobs.

Last year, Rep. Jessyn Ferrell introduced a measure in Washington’s state legislature to raise the state minimum wage to $12 over several years. The House also passed a paid sick and safe leave bill, which – if it hadn’t been blocked by the coalition controlling the Senate – would have added another important measure of income security for working families.

When our state legislature reconvenes in January, passing those minimum wage and paid sick days measures should be at the very top of the agenda.

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