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The first step to build back better: Give America a raise

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Americans are struggling, and the coronavirus has shed a new light on an issue we have known exists for far too long: workers are underpaid. Many of our essential workers who put their lives on the line each day are earning a wage they cannot live on. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised in 12 years, the longest stretch in U.S. history! It’s unacceptable, which is why we must act now to raise the wage.

Once again, we have reintroduced the Raise the Wage Act in the House. This time, we did so with the support of the House Labor Caucus and President Biden, sending a clear message to workers: we see you, we hear you and we value you. As we continue to battle the coronavirus and an economic crisis, the fight for $15 is more critical than ever, and this administration knows that raising the minimum wage is the first crucial step to truly and equitably building back better. That’s why the president included the policy in his American Rescue Plan, and the House is advancing it in the FY21 budget reconciliation bill.

I’ve worked for minimum wage. I was also once a young, single dad raising my son and having to balance work, family life and a checkbook. Back then it was hard. Today, in the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis, it’s impossible. The Congressional Budget Office reported this week that gradually raising the federal minimum wage would reduce income inequality, increase pay for 27 million workers and pull nearly 1 million Americans out of poverty, while the Brookings Institution released data showing that raising the wage would disproportionately benefit America’s essential workers. As President Biden has said, “let’s not just praise them, let’s pay them.”

The social contract that guided us for generations — that if you work hard and play by the rules you can make it in America — is long since broken, and the pandemic has exacerbated racial and gender inequity, leaving millions doing essential work for low pay. Hard-working families are being forced to choose rent over clothes, food over medicine, today over tomorrow. No American should have to decide between putting food on their table or putting their child to bed hungry. If the legislation is passed this year, by the time we reach a $15 minimum wage in 2025 it will have been 16 years since the last raise that set the minimum wage at $7.25 in 2009. If we do the math, that’s less than a 49 cent per year raise! Surely America’s minimum wage workers have earned that.

My top priority in Congress is fighting for working families because for me, that fight is personal. New Jersey is a national leader on minimum wage, equal pay and paid family leave policies, and I know that we’ll have a stronger, more productive workforce if federal laws followed our state’s example. In 2019, I led the House in passing the Raise the Wage Act. Unfortunately, the Senate did not pass the bill, and we went into 2020 unprepared and with a stagnant $7.25 minimum wage. Little did we know, we would be thrown into the worst public health and economic crisis of the century, with workers struggling more than ever. Last year, I voted for coronavirus relief packages to help the workers struggling to get by and the millions of Americans who’ve found themselves suddenly unemployed and without savings because they have earned a minimum wage salary for far too long. Now more than ever these workers and their families need and deserve a raise.

Since March, residents have been doing everything they can to survive and help their neighbors get through this difficult time. When families finally get the raise they’ve earned and the relief they need, they’ll spend more at our local businesses and give our economy a much-needed jolt. Voters have spoken and demanded action on raising the minimum wage. We can’t afford to drop the ball again by leaving it out of the American Rescue Plan. Now, with a Democratic Congress working in lockstep with the Biden-Harris administration, it’s time to raise the wage!

Donald Norcross represents New Jersey’s 1st District and serves on the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Tags $15 minimum wage Donald Norcross frontline workers Joe Biden wage increase

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