For 20 years, senior staff attorney Michael Gaitley has run clinics up and down California for low-income workers as part of his work for the San Francisco–based, nonprofit Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center.
Fueled by increased economic disparity in the U.S. since the start of the recession in 2008, about 1,500 low wage earners flock to these clinics on a yearly basis, seeking free legal advice. Gaitley sees many of them himself. They’re people who make the minimum wage or less, laboring at mainly mom-and-pop shops—restaurants, car washes, small garment stores—and because of that also moonlight on the side just to support their families.
To Gaitley and other labor rights activists, raising the minimum wage and passing the Fair Minimum Wage Act, a proposed bill that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, is a “no-brainer,” he says. President Obama himself, according to an anonymous White House official speaking to the The New York Times, supports the bill.
“We have many workers who come to our clinics and rush in, in between two jobs,” says Gaitley. “A near 25 to 35 percent increase in the minimum wage would cover working a second job: a three-, four-hour shift. With people having to moonlight, it’s a heartbreaker. People can’t come to our clinic because they have to scrape together a second income. Those second jobs are a burden to their families.”
According to a U.S. Census Bureau report out this week, the poverty rate in America in 2012 was 16 percent, or 49.7 million people. The income gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s been since the late 1920s, with the most wealthy 1 percent of American earners collecting 19.3 percent of household income in 2012. Those top earners saw their incomes go up 20 percent, while the remaining 99 percent experienced a 1 percent jump, according to an academic study released in September by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley; the Paris School of Economics; and Oxford University.
Low-income Americans are struggling, no question.
The proposed minimum wage increase bill, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. George Miller of California, would work to reduce poverty and lessen child and family hunger by raising wages for parents—especially affecting women—and could even decrease the number of people on welfare.
“If you’re making less in wages, you’re more likely to need food stamps,” says Gaitley. “The best way to address this is to raise the minimum wage, so people are less likely to need that social safety net.”
Lowell Turner, a political economics professor at Cornell University and the director of the school's Worker Institute, which seeks to advance worker rights, agrees that an increased minimum wage is long overdue.
Even better than a fixed $10.10 minimum wage would be the adoption of an indexed minimum wage, says Turner, which would regularly go up in value in line with inflation and productivity, as is the practice in France.
As for the business industry arguing that an increased minimum wage would lead to employers dropping workers, Turner sees the opposite as being the case.
“When you force employers to raise the wages for people who work for them, they will invest more,” he says. “It’s a strong incentive to invest in training, actually keep employees, and raise their skill levels.”