In an election year dominated by socioeconomic themes, it seems logical that raising the federal minimum wage would become a heated campaign issue in the battle for the presidency. Stagnating wages and the increasing concentration of wealth among the nation's highest earners have prompted calls to boost the purchasing power of American workers. At $7.25 an hour, a full-time federal minimum-wage earner makes about $15,080 a year, which is below the federal poverty level for a two-person family.
But neither President Barack Obama nor Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said much about the minimum wage, though Obama once called for raising it to $9.50 an hour by the end of 2011 and Romney supported indexing it for inflation earlier this year until conservatives cried foul.
In the absence of a prominent push to boost the federal minimum wage, states and local governments have picked up the slack: Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wage rates that are higher than the federal level.
In January, eight of those states - Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Washington and Vermont - raised their hourly minimum wages by 28 to 37 cents. Last month, Rhode Island bumped its minimum wage from $7.40 an hour to $7.75, to take effect next year.
In Massachusetts, which passed the first state minimum-wage law 100 years ago, lawmakers are weighing whether to raise the wage to $10 an hour next year. Voters in Missouri will decide in November whether to hike their minimum wage.
Santa Fe, N.M., and San Francisco boast the nation's highest minimum wage rates, at $10.29 and $10.24 per hour, respectively. San Jose, Calif., voters might lift their city's floor wage from $8 to $10 an hour in November, and volunteers in Albuquerque, N.M., are collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that would raise their city's minimum wage to $8.50 an hour.
Though it typically enjoys strong public support, raising the minimum wage is always contentious.
Some economists say increases spur more consumer spending, which helps the economy and ultimately creates jobs. Others say the rate increases hurt job creation during economic downturns and put a drag on hiring when the economy is strong.
As the three-year anniversary of the last federal minimum-wage hike arrives July 24, a coalition of labor, religious and women's groups is preparing to fight for an increase once again. The activist groups are launching a nationwide campaign to raise the federal minimum wage, starting with a national "Day of Action" on Tuesday.
Marches and rallies are planned Tuesday at congressional district offices and at businesses that pay low wages. In Chicago, protesters will hold a trolley tour of low-wage employers, while activists in Pittsburgh will rally for higher wages outside City Hall. Similar events are planned in dozens of cities, including New York, Washington, Miami, Kansas City, Mo., Sacramento, Calif., and Philadelphia.
Democrats in Congress also are weighing in. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., soon will introduce legislation to raise the federal minimum wage by 85 cents an hour for three straight years - taking it from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour - and then index it annually for inflation thereafter. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., already have introduced similar bills. The proposals would provide raises for about 28 million people, according to estimates by the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute.
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