A recession is looming. In July, the Fed cut interest rates for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis. Wealth inequality is growing, the racial wealth gap is exploding, and wages for ordinary workers are stuck and stagnant. For most families, especially Black and brown families, their wages are simply not enough to keep up. The Republican-controlled Senate is holding the key to a better economy hostage, and it doesn’t have to be this way.
GOP Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking one of our best chances to pull working families out of poverty and pump money back into our communities: raising the minimum wage. The House has already passed the Raise the Wage Act of 2019, a popular bill that would bring the federal minimum wage up to $15 per hour by 2025, eliminate the racist and discriminatory tipped minimum wage, and tie the minimum wage to median wages so that wages aren’t dragged down by inaction again.
“Hiking the minimum wage to $15 would kill jobs and depress the economy at a time when it’s thriving for the American people,” McConnell said in a tweet earlier this summer. “We are not going to be taking that up in the Senate.”
A higher minimum wage is common sense for workers and our economy. In real terms, the value of the minimum wage has plummeted by nearly 15% since it was last raised in 2009. The federal minimum wage has languished at just $7.25 an hour since 2009. That’s the longest we’ve ever gone without a raise for America’s lowest paid workers since the federal minimum wage was created in 1938.
Today, someone working full-time for minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. At the same time, the cost of living is skyrocketing. Millions of working families are putting in longer hours at multiple jobs just to barely scrape by on less and less. We the people are overdue for a raise.
Raising the minimum wage means a raise for an estimated 33.5 million workers, both directly and indirectly. In other words, nearly one-fifth of the workforce would get a raise. Between now and 2025, the Raise the Wage Act would put more than $92.5 billion into the pockets of America’s frontline workers. That’s $92.5 billion for groceries, gas, medicine, school supplies, and more. For families living on the edge, that money could make all the difference.
The Raise the Wage Act also eliminates the racist and discriminatory tipped minimum wage. Since 1996, the tipped minimum wage—the minimum wage for workers who typically receive tips like restaurant workers and valets—has been a shocking $2.13 per hour. This minuscule wage means that many workers are forced to rely on tips for the bulk of their wages and never know how much money they’ll take home at the end of a shift. When paying your rent depends on tips from your customers, you may be forced to endure sexual harassment and other mistreatment just to make ends meet. In fact, workers in states with a subminimum wage for tipped workers are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment.
The tipped minimum wage is rooted in racism and exploitation. After the end of slavery, restaurants and rail operators often forced former slaves to work for tips alone. The original minimum wage laws deliberately excluded majority-Black occupations like domestic workers from its labor protections and allowed tipped workers to be paid a subminimum wage. To this day, tipped workers are still disproportionately people of color.
Southern workers in particular have a lot on the line. Eleven of the 21 states that have refused to raise the minimum wage are in the region. Low-income workers and workers of color across the South face state laws that ban local cities and counties from raising local minimum wages. These same workers often can’t get state legislatures to listen to them because gerrymandering and racist voter suppression dilute their voices.
As a Black woman from the South, this is personal for me. Raising the minimum wage would mean a raise for 41% of Black working women and 38 percent of Latina working women. In 30 states, more than half of Black and Latina working women would benefit from a $15 minimum wage by 2025.
The Senate has the chance to put money straight into the pockets of struggling families, but “Moscow Mitch” is refusing to even consider bringing the Raise the Wage Act to a vote. Instead, he’s bragging about being the legislative Grim Reaper—killing progressive policies left and right.
I can’t trust this government to lead, but I do trust the people. As the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, I know this country was built on the labor of Black people. I know too many of us are working for poverty wages. Also, I know that our votes can transform this country if they aren’t squashed, stolen, or gerrymandered out of relevance.
This is our government, and we must hold it accountable to us, to working-class America, and to the future. We the people aren’t just passive observers of policy. We can shape policy and make the politicians who work for us really work for us. Many people in Congress don’t deserve to represent us any longer. We have an opportunity in my state of Georgia to elect a new U.S. senator. Plus, there are 33 Senate seats up for grabs in 2020.
The Senate has not been responsive to our needs and, most importantly, does not have all of the power. This upcoming election is a real opportunity for us to elect senators who serve in the best interests of working people. We must remind them that we have the power. It’s time to use it.
Written by Latosha Brown