America deserves a raise: Why Biden should prioritize a $15 minimum wage

One of President-elect Biden’s first legislative priorities should be a substantial increase in the federal minimum wage. Congressional Republicans would almost certainly block such a measure. But a minimum wage increase is long overdue, would send an important signal to American workers, and would force the Republicans to own the current minimum of $7.25 an hour going into the 2022 midterm elections.

The current minimum dates from 2009. It wouldn’t have covered the bills back then, when it was already below its peak value, and it’s been eroded by inflation over the subsequent decade, despite dramatic productivity gains. As a result, a single worker holding a minimum wage job could put in 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, with no vacation at all in 2019 and barely clear the official poverty line of $12,490, let alone climb the proverbial ladder. If the worker had a family — or even a single child — to feed, moreover, they’d fall below the poverty line, in all likelihood to stay. And insofar as women and minorities make up a disproportionate share of the low-wage labor force, they’re particularly vulnerable to the consequences.

It’s worth noting that these are not the “indolent poor” of the Republican imagination. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that more than a million workers are being paid at or below the federal minimum. And millions more are being paid less than the hourly wages mandated by New York City ($15), Denver ($12.85), Arizona ($12), Massachusetts ($12.75), and dozens of other cities and states that have gone beyond the federal minimum in an effort to guarantee all workers a “living wage.”

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What’s nice about these efforts is not only that they promise a living wage, but that they rebut the principal objection to minimum wage laws more generally: that by raising the cost of doing business they’ll destroy the very jobs they’re designed to improve. In every locality that has considered a living wage proposal, employers have raised the specter of bankruptcy and job loss. And in localities that have nonetheless gone forward with their proposals, jobs have improved rather than disappeared.

In fact, the best evidence suggests that minimum wage increases have no discernible impact on the employment level. In their classic study of the fast-food industry’s response to a minimum wage spike in New Jersey, for instance, economists David Card and Alan Kruger found that fast-food restaurants in the Garden State suffered no net employment loss when compared to a “control group” of restaurants in eastern Pennsylvania, despite their outsized reliance on low-wage labor and the inopportune timing of the spike — which occurred during a downturn in the 1990s. Card and Krueger have their critics, to be sure. But the bulk of the evidence is consistent with their position, and doubts about the employment costs of minimum wage legislation have, if anything, grown with the appearance of more real-world experiments in more cities and states across the country.

It’s no surprise, then, that most Americans support a minimum wage increase. The American National Election Study (ANES) found that more than 80 percent of self-identified “liberals,” and almost 70 percent of their “moderate” counterparts, supported an increase in 2016. And a ballot initiative that amends Florida’s constitution to mandate a $15 minimum wage passed on Election Day with overwhelming support — despite Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s victory over Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE in the state’s presidential contest.

Of course, Florida Republicans, including Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans Group of Florida mayors calls on DeSantis to issue mask mandate DeSantis promises to keep Florida open despite recent coronavirus case surge MORE, opposed the amendment, and there’s no reason to expect their fellow Republicans to support a minimum wage increase in Congress. By merely proposing such a measure, however, President-elect Biden would underscore his own values, force the Republicans to acknowledge theirs, and boost his credibility with two key constituencies: the left-wing of the Democratic Party, who doubt his progressive bona fides; and working class Trump supporters, who’ve defected to the Republicans in part because they’ve been let down by the Democrats for decades. In fact, the ANES found support for a higher minimum wage not only among liberals and moderates but among almost two-thirds of all Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016. If ever there was a “wedge issue,” it’s the minimum wage.

A minimum wage increase is a win-win proposition for the Biden administration. If congressional Republicans support the measure, the president-elect will have gained his first legislative victory by giving American workers a long-overdue raise. And if Republicans oppose it, he will have exposed their faux populism, secured his left-wing flank, and made an appeal to potential swing voters in the runup to the midterm elections, when the electoral map is already skewed in his favor. Biden should do the smart thing and put a minimum wage increase first and foremost among his economic priorities.

Andrew Schrank is the Olive C. Watson Professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs at Brown University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.