Eve Lister testified at a Connecticut minimum wage hearing in February 2012. She took a leave from her job after her mother died and found she couldn’t return. Despite a graduate degree in education, she couldn’t find a new job and went to work for $8.50, just above minimum wage. Also a single mother of two boys, she serves coffee and runs the cash register at a coffee shop. She gets a modest alimony scheduled to end this summer. She has no idea how she will cope then, even with energy assistance and food stamps.
Multiply these stories a millionfold and you have an inkling of the crisis faced by women earning minimum wage. You can’t even say that they are barely making it – they aren’t making it, period.
Who suffers the most from the disparity between what the federal minimum wage is now -- $7.25 -- and what it should be? Women do. They are more than 62 percent of minimum-wage workers; slightly more than 2.5 million women earn the minimum wage or less, compared to 1.5 million men. They are not all teenagers, either. More than three quarters of women earning the minimum wage are at least 20 years old or older, and 40 percent are over 30. Women are nearly two-thirds of workers in tipped occupations, where the federal minimum cash wage is $2.13 per hour – the same as in 1991. A substandard minimum wage is surely part of the reason that women earn so much less than men.
The minimum wage rate mandated by federal law in 1968 was set during a time when the nation regarded poverty as a problem that could be solved and a decent minimum wage as an essential tool to boost low incomes. But 1968 turned out to be the high-water mark for the minimum wage. By 2012, a law meant to help low-wage workers escape poverty has been rendered nearly useless for that purpose. From 1968 to 2012 the purchasing power of the federal minimum wage fell by 31 percent. A full-time, year-round worker paid the current federal minimum wage earns just $14,500 – more than $3,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. If we had kept the promise made to low-wage workers over the past 40 years -- to at least keep the minimum wage from falling behind -- that wage would be $10.52 per hour today.
A proposal now before Congress – the Fair Minimum Wage Act -- would raise the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour in increments over the next three years and increase the tipped minimum cash wage from $2.13 per hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Perhaps most important, it would index the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. As the wage rises, it would boost wages for those who now make more than $7.25 but less than $9.80 -- more than 28 million workers by the third year, more than half of whom are women. A higher minimum wage also exerts upward pressure on wages generally by lifting the floor for all workers.
Those who argue that with a weak economy we can’t afford decent wages have it wrong. Earlier this year the Center for American Progress identified five different studies all indicating that when federal and states governments have raised the minimum wage during periods of high unemployment, employment has been unaffected. Furthermore when low income wage-earners get a raise, they spend it right away and give a boost to the economy.
Our country is in a slump, but it is not so poor that these women and their families must remain destitute, even when they hold a job. Passage of the Fair Minimum Wage Act must be a top priority, and voters must demand that candidates commit to it in the coming election season. We can’t wait another Labor Day to make work pay.
Kaufman is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. See is the president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.