If the Fight for $15 Wins, Fewer Americans Will Go Hungry
Want to find a way to dramatically reduce hunger in America? How about bumping up the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour?
It would seem like common sense: A significant number of the more than 17.2 million households in the U.S. that are food insecure include at least one member who works, and many of those workers are employed in low-wage jobs. So raising the minimum wage would seem a surefire way to boost the grocery budgets of those households.
Remarkably, putting more money in the pockets of low-wage workers has often been overlooked in the debate over how to end the unconscionable yet seemingly intractable problem of hunger in the richest country on Earth. Among the 20 recommendations put forth by Congress’ blue-ribbon National Commission on Hunger earlier this year, not one included raising the minimum wage—even as the commission admitted that the economic trends of the past half century “have contributed to fewer well-paying job opportunities for those without postsecondary education.”
It has been almost seven years since America’s lowest-wage workers got a raise—and arguably a lot longer than that if you adjust for inflation. At $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum is about $3.60 less in today’s dollars than what minimum wage workers were making 50 years ago.
Thus, the only surprise to emerge from an economic analysis released Thursday by The Century Foundation on the effect raising the minimum wage would have on the hunger crisis is that its conclusions should seem like any surprise at all. As the report’s author, economist William M. Rodgers III, a fellow at the nonpartisan progressive think tank, writes, “A minimum wage increase can make a major impact on hunger among families with working members.”
What does Rodgers mean by “major”? By gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour over the next seven years—a proposal put forth by Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., that has failed to catch fire in the Republican-controlled House—more than 1.2 million families would achieve food security, according to Rodgers’ analysis. Among them would be some of the most economically vulnerable, including a significant number of single-parent and minority households. In a climate in which federal assistance to the poor, including food stamps, has increasingly come under political attack, raising the income of the working poor would allow those programs to focus on serving the food-insecure households with the most dire need.
Yet even as the movement to boost the minimum wage to $15 has scored big victories in certain cities and states across the country, including Seattle, New York, and California, increasing the federal minimum wage remains more or less a nonstarter in D.C. Rodgers sees marrying the wage issue to the fight against hunger as critical: “Shifting the minimum wage debate’s focus to food security provides advocates with a concrete rationale for increasing the minimum wage,” he writes. “It provides [a] simple, yet very tangible outcome for policy makers and the public to observe. Minimum wage policy helps anti-hunger advocates to address their concerns that, in the current fiscal climate, low-wage workers are unable to receive adequate public support to meet basic needs.”