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Reframing the minimum wage

by Eric Ferguson on November 24, 2013 · 7 comments

WAGE-color-3-col-1024x852There was a recent poll showing Americans 76% support an increase in the minimum wage. This last election, New Jersey voters raised their state minimum wage in a constitutional amendment that also will raise it with inflation. This despite easily reelecting Chris Christie who vetoed an increase. They overruled their bully boy governor even as they bizarrely gave him another term. When minimum wage increases are on the ballot, they pass, seemingly every time. I’m hardly claiming exhaustive research here, just noting that if a ballot measure to raise a state’s minimum wage ever failed, I couldn’t find it.


Essentially, raising the minimum wage is a classic instance of good policy being good politics. We should be able to tell candidates for public office that if they can ignore the special interest lobbyists and big donor money, if they can make this their issue and stay on the right side of it, their odds of winning are seriously enhanced. Yes, I know, the fact it’s the right thing to do should be enough, but, you know, there’s that reality thing.


Now when I say “reframing”, I mean that supporters of a wage increase aim too low. I’m not referring to the fast food workers’ campaign for a $15 an hour. Quite the contrary, they have the right idea. I’m thinking more of Pres. Obama asking Congress to raise the federal wage to $9. He’s since raised his request to $10, but he might as well have asked for more for all the likelihood of the Republican majority in the House taking it up. In this year’s session of the Minnesota legislature, the House sought to raise the state wage to $9.50, but the Senate wanted only $7.50. They pushed it off to next year after being unable to agree, but if they had, presumably they would have split the difference around a still paltry $8.50.


When New Jersey just passed its constitutional amendment, it raised the wage only to $8.25. That’s a dollar better, but what a shame the supporters didn’t go for more. In Seatac, WA, however, they raised it to $15 for hospitality and transportation workers around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Yes, the same amount the fast food workers were seeking. Maybe Seatac is unique and $15 is pie in the sky, but Seatac and the fast food workers have raised the range of what can be considered. The sincere supporters seeking something like $9 are asking for what they’ll settle for, as if conservatives won’t oppose an increase no matter what, and the more centrist Democrats will do what they always do, take their party’s proposals and water them down just to prove their centrism. Supporters, by starting with what they consider a reasonable compromise, are lowering the ceiling for what can be considered.


Even at the federal level, though a wage increase won’t be considered by the current Congress, it’s widening the area of politically permissible discussion. Go ahead and seek $15 with all the derision that will bring, because it’s a long game for the day when it’s passable, and the increase can be watered down to a more sensible centrist $10. Maybe in some circumstances, like the Minnesota legislature, where Democrats hold both houses, it should be possible to reframe the debate in a much shorter time, like the next session.


It might feel manipulative, talking about a framing strategy, getting politicians to react to the political benefit of supporting something popular rather than doing it merely because it’s good policy, but there we are. In fact, there was an interesting remark made to me by a legislator, who will go unnamed to avoid giving this person problems with colleagues. This legislator said the House wanted the higher increase because it’s up for reelection next year, while Senators get to wait until 2016. So the popularity has sunk in somewhat — the ones who want to go bigger are the same ones worried about their reelection. Unfortunately, it also indicates some Democratic senators either can’t figure out what’s popular, can’t figure out the facts around the policy, or they’re listening to some special interest. Or at least they’re listening to someone who is wrong, claiming a minimum wage increase kills jobs, which is a claim that has never stood up to scrutiny. The Democrats more attuned to facts will have to pound it into their colleagues heads.
So go for a minimum wage increase, and go for a big one, both because it’s been falling behind inflation and productivity for a long time, and because it’s the smarter strategy for getting a bigger increase. It’s both good policy and a winning election issue, both at the federal and state level. While I’m often sympathetic to the claim that a specific district just isn’t going to support a liberal policy and some specific legislator or congressman can’t go that far, this point needs to be reinforced to any reluctant Democrat: it doesn’t matter which state or district you’re from. It’s popular everywhere.

Jude November 25, 2013 at 1:10 am

I was sorry to see that the Swiss didn’t vote for the executive vs mean salary cap. However the growing worldwide disparity in compensation needs to be addressed.

The minimum wage is a blunt instrument that unfortunately needs to be employed. It is not a solution only a paliative. It will hurt many small endeavors that are having enough trouble competing with the larger entities. In reality it will only be hastening the trend. That trend too needs to be addressed.

We need to cut financial services in half as a part of our economy or we will see this disparity increase.

Russ Rogers November 25, 2013 at 7:09 am

In 1968, the Minimum wage was $10.60 an hour (adjusted for Inflation). Why were workers in 1968 valued more highly than workers today? If Minimum Wage had JUST kept up with increases in Inflation, our workers would already be making more than $10 an hour. If Minimum Wage had kept up with increases in PRODUCTIVITY, our workers would be making more than $20 per hour! Productivity is UP! Our workers are able to generate MORE value in the same amount of time. But they are getting VALUED less! There is a disconnect there that is making the people at the top increasing wealthy. Unfortunately, it’s the people at the top who have gamed the system.

Why does Minnesota value our workers less than New Jersey or even the Federal Government? Are we saying that our workers are not worth as much as workers in New Jersey? Why should we be content to have some of the LOWEST wage standards in the Nation? Is that really how we think of our workers, that they are worth LESS than other States? Don’t we have better schools? Aren’t our workers better prepared? Don’t our workers have a better “work ethic”? They are obviously worth MORE than other States! Don’t they deserve to be compensated like that?

BTW, tipped employees have not had a boost in their Minimum Wage for 20 years! That’s criminal.

Eric Ferguson November 25, 2013 at 9:30 am

Just to clarify on the tip penalty, that was set at the current low level, $2.13 was set in the early 1990′s to get the National Restaurant Association (the other despicable NRA) to stop opposing an increase. States can go higher if they want, and Minnesota is one of the states that doesn’t have the tip penalty. Unfortunately for workers in tipping jobs, most states have it. So far at the federal level, and, so far as I know, in most states, the NRA is still strong enough to save the tip penalty during minimum wage increases. So that’s something else to communicate to candidates, that the people most badly in need of an increase are low income workers who often have low voter turnout. If they turn out, Democrats win. I doubt there’s a single congressional or even legislative district in the country where that isn’t true.

Mac Hall November 25, 2013 at 11:01 am

“Even at the federal level, though a wage increase won’t be considered by the current Congress”

… “wage increase” ? ? ?

Did you miss Chairman Kline’s reaction to the Department of Labor’s plan to allow home healthcare aides to be covered by wage laws beginning in 2015 ? That means these workers can continue to be paid below minimum wage and be denied overtime. Chairman Kline warned that these new rules would drive some individuals into “institutional living”.

For-profit home care businesses dominate the in-home care sector with companies like Interim HealthCare with 75,000 employees, Home Instead with 65,000 Comfort Keepers with 25,000 employees … these companies charge consumers approximately twice the hourly rate paid to caregivers earning 30-40% profit. Approximately 50 percent of home care workers rely on some form of public assistance to supplement their low wages.

It is a tragedy that it will take so long for the Obama Administration to included home healthcare aides under wage laws … yet with Chairman Kline leading the opposition, you know the roadblocks that he will use to obstruct the Administration just to deny workers from even earning a minimum wage and requiring overtime pay.

Grace Kelly November 27, 2013 at 9:27 am

Very good post!

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