In the road to fair wages, citizens will win where lawmakers fail
© Getty Images

For many Americans, 2017 is already giving them a reason to celebrate. Millions of low-wage workers received their first raise of the new year this week as minimum wage increases in 19 states were seen in paychecks across the country.

These raises range from a few cents an hour to more significant increases. In Maine, where the wage went up by $1.50 an hour, 2017 ushers in the first raise in nearly eight years. More may be needed to bring financial security to workers and their families, but the new wage will be a big help for tens of thousands struggling to make ends meet in that state.

While these workers celebrate better wages, tens of millions of others watch as Congress enters its eighth year without changing the federal minimum wage, and many state legislatures remain locked in partisan fights that prevent economic solutions from reaching workers.

In some cases, politicians did their jobs. They saw the need to address low wages for their constituents and raised them—but those were rare and far between. For 70 percent of the raises taking effect this year, relief came directly from citizens acting through ballot measures. This form of direct democracy allows millions of voters and community leaders to join forces and vote for an economy that’s a little fairer for themselves, their neighbors and their families.

Last year alone, six states and the District of Columbia organized campaigns to increase wages for eight million workers through citizen-driven ballot initiatives. In states where the issue appeared on the ballot, all of the measures passed with at least a 10-point margin of victory. In fact, since 2004, minimum wage ballot initiatives typically won, and generally by healthy margins.

Ballot initiatives are the result of Americans’ political will—not their elected leaders’ political courage. With ballot initiatives available in only 23 states, we need leaders from statehouses to Capitol Hill to end political bickering and fix our broken economy. It is unacceptable that entire communities suffer from poverty-level wages because our elected officials have been unable to rally around fair wages for hardworking Americans.


But voters know that better wages bring tremendous benefits. State campaigns are built on diverse coalitions that understand that higher pay benefits more than the workers that receive the wages. Bigger paychecks mean local businesses can welcome new customers, schools can teach prepared and healthy children, and families have more security.

Most minimum wage workers are adults. On average, they are 35 years old and struggling to put together a living. For people like April in Colorado, who works around the clock to support her family and just started earning $9.30 an hour, it means a boost of almost $50 a week. Kathy in Arizona will now be earning $10 an hour, not enough to be worry-free, but she might able to take one less shift and spend more time with her family.

On behalf of the millions of Kathys and Aprils, Congress and state legislatures must step up against donors and corporate lobbyists and take bold action for the voters.

But if our elected officials don’t act, everyday people will. In 2016, they had the courage to organize their communities to create real change. The coming years will be no different. We’re prepared to support those ready to use their collective power to create real change that directly improves the lives of working people in America.

Jonathan Schleifer is executive director of The Fairness Project, a national organization working to address economic fairness through ballot initiatives. This year, it was vital in raising the minimum wage in six states, benefiting more than 8 million workers.

The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.