On this Labor Day, mind the (income) gap

On this Labor Day, mind the (income) gap

The Torah provides a moral imperative: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” In practical terms in today’s economic environment, that means at the very least we should support a just minimum wage — a wage that will enable working people to support themselves and their families. And we must partner with others to ensure that it happens.

We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign both on the federal level and in Alaska; Massachusetts; New Jersey; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; or wherever state and local governments are attempting to act while the Congress fails to.

The current federal minimum wage isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, many of today’s full-time minimum-wage workers make just $15,080 a year. Even in a family with two people working minimum-wage jobs, household income hovers at the poverty level. And that’s assuming they are lucky enough to have full-time jobs. Those in New Jersey working at the new state minimum wage are better off, but still having a very hard time.

Moreover, the makeup of minimum-wage workers has changed. Partly because of the latest economic downturn, more low-wage workers today are older and better educated than ever. In addition, more of those earning the minimum wage are people supporting their families, not teens earning money for movie tickets.

Meanwhile, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has plummeted. From January 1981 to April 1990, the federal minimum wage was never raised. In 2007, Congress raised the federal minimum wage by $2.10, to $7.25 per hour, as a first step toward restoring it to its historic value. But for the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power today that it had back in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour now. That is why the federal rate is still not enough to support a family, and even the estimated 250,000 workers in New Jersey who got a raise at the beginning of 2014 as the minimum wage was boosted by a dollar, to $8.25 an hour, face a similar challenge. 

As Labor Day approaches, American Jews should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors, who could earn only poverty wages in the garment trades and other sectors when they first arrived in the United States.

The challenges confronting those in minimum-wage jobs today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices, and work at fast-food restaurants. The vast majority work multiple minimum-wage jobs to support their families and they are still struggling, faced with terrible choices over which bills to pay — rent or heat, groceries or medicine — that none among us should be forced to make.

A comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute points out the benefits of raising the minimum wage. An increase to $10.10 by July 1, 2015, would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive more than $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period, increase gross domestic product by roughly $32.6 billion, and create a net gain of 140,000 new jobs.

It would not, as many conservatives claim, kill jobs. Moreover, it would be an important step in closing the widening income gap.

So we need to raise the federal minimum wage. Yet much of the business sector and its allies continue to stymie even modest attempts to lift the federal minimum-wage workers out of poverty. In a weak economy with many unemployed, companies can use their enhanced bargaining power to cut wages, benefits, and hours. The consuming public also plays a role. Too often, we fail to make the link between low prices and widespread poverty.

Some states, such as New Jersey, frustrated by the inability of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, have raised the minimum wage locally. This needs to be done nationally — and it needs to be done now. But until it happens, states and cities can fill some of the gap by raising their minimum wage levels.

The delegates at this year’s annual Plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs overwhelmingly passed a resolution in support of Increasing the Minimum Wage, which the JLC co-sponsored. Among the steps the JCPA resolution proposed were educating about the failure of the minimum wage to keep up with the cost of living and how it is too low to keep workers and their families out of poverty; advocating for legislation increasing the federal minimum wage and for increases in the minimum wage at state and local levels; and encouraging Jewish organizations to institute a $10.10 minimum wage policy for all of their employees and their contractors’ employees. 

If we are to provide a measure of justice where it counts to the least well-paid among us, we have to do our part to support an increase in the minimum wage. We must partner with others to ensure it happens. We need to talk about it with our friends, families, and neighbors.

We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign and encourage the wider community to join. It’s the right and just thing to do.

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