On Monday, Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), made another attempt to better the lives of working class Americans by raising the minimum wage to $7.25. The federal minimum wage has remained stagnant at $5.15 since its last increase in 1996, while the value of a dollar has decreased by 23.51%. Democrats proposed a 3-step increase, with the wage rising $.70 at a time over the next 26 months.
Senator Kennedy spoke plainly and honestly about the need for an increase, saying, "I believe that anyone who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year should not live in poverty in the richest country in the world." Kennedy is absolutely right, and I decided to crunch some numbers and find out just how much a person makes in a year working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, for $5.15 an hour.
$10,712. Before taxes.
The 2005 federal poverty level for a family of four (with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii) is $19,350. After taxes, a family of four with two parents both working full-time, taking no vacation or sick days, for the federal minimum wage amounts to about $16,000 a year. Factor in an estimated $700 a month for rent, and this family is hurting badly, with less than $8,000 left over to pay bills, buy groceries, and clothe their children for an entire year. This family will be lucky to eat regularly all year without having their heat or electricity turned off. They will be lucky if they can pay their rent on time. They will save nothing, and probably won't be able to afford quality (or any) day-care or after-school care for their kids while they are working full-time.
The Republican response to this included a statement by Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi, who said, "Wages do not cause sales. Sales are needed to provide wages. Wages do not cause revenue. Revenue drives wages." What Enzi fails to understand is that raising wages increases the purchasing power of working class Americans. Increasing buying power increases sales. It's a continuum. Sales can't increase without an increase in wages.
There is an old saying that the measure of civilization in a society can be seen in how that society treats its prisoners. While this is accurate, we cannot forget that how we treat all of our citizens tells the world what kind of country we are. As Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said, "This is a values issue. This is at the heart of what kind of country we want."
Senate Republicans, in typical fashion, proposed an "alternative" increase to $6.25 in 2 steps of $.55 each over 18 months. The Republican plan, however, managed to raise the minimum wage while still gutting the little guy. Republicans, led by 2006 Dem target Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), snuck in several pro-business provisions, including an option for employees to work up to 80 hours in two weeks without qualifying for overtime pay, a provision restricting the ability of states to raise the minimum wage for restaurant employees, and waiving wage and overtime rules for workers in some small businesses currently covered. The proposal also included tax breaks totaling $4.2 billion--mostly for the restaurant industry.
Both initiatives failed on the Senate floor, but there is encouragement to be taken from this failure. The Democratic bill garnered 46 yes votes and 49 no votes with 5 Senators not voting. The Republican bill received 38 yes votes and 61 no votes with 1 Senator not voting. 4 Republicans voted with the Democrats on Kennedy's increase--without the pro-business agenda added on. This is a positive moment. If the 3 Democrats who did not participate in the vote had voted with the rest of the party on the proposition, they would have needed only 2 more votes to clear the Senate. The Republicans had absolutely no chance of leaving the Senate with their bill.
Perhaps some Republicans are growing that ever elusive thing the rest of us call a conscience. The fact that 4 Republican Senators voted with the Democrats on this, while not one Democrat voted with yes on the Republican proposition shows that Republicans can be persuaded to change their ways.
Let's hope it takes.
Katherine Brengle is a 23-year-old college student and writer from Massachusetts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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