With little fanfare, and even less media reporting, the Senate voted down a bill that would increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.25 an hour. The vote, which was 51-49 and needed 60 votes to pass because of a Senate agreement, was split mostly down party lines. The few Republicans who did vote for the bill were going to be up for re-election in 2006, in what are turning out to be close races and probably did not want to explain this vote to their constituents.
The last time the minimum wage was increased it was 1997, at that time the average salary of a member of the US Senate was $133,600. In the past 8 years the Senate has increased its salary a number of times, their salary as of the last increase puts each Senator receiving on average $162,100 a year (that is $150,139 in 1997 adjusted dollars, an adjusted 11% increase). Comparatively the minimum wage in the past 8 years is now worth an equivalent of $4.77 in adjusted 1997 dollars, an 8% decrease. Ironically if the senate had passed the $1.10 increase to minimum wage, the resulting increase in 1997 adjusted dollars would be the same percentage increase as the one that the Senators have enjoyed over the past eight years.
This increase was mostly aimed at helping workers in small cities and rural communities who now are finding it harder to make ends meet than they were in 1997, and are having to take multiple jobs to be able to put food on the table and gas in their car. Over the past the four years the Department of Labor has recorded yearly increases in the number of workers filing tax returns for multiple jobs in rural states. In fiscal year 2003 the percentage of workers in multiple jobs in states like Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah was exceeding 10%. A poll of workers working multiple jobs in these states found that nearly three quarters of these workers were working multiple jobs to pay off debt or make ends meet.
In more urbanized states the number of workers in multiple jobs is about half what it is in rural states. The reason for this disparity is that with the larger pool of potential jobs in urban areas there is more competition for workers. This inflates the amount that employers are willing to pay, but it is also one of the contributing factors to the increased prices for basic goods and services in metropolitan areas. But most workers in metropolitan areas are able to afford to live on a single job. Rural workers do not have the advantage of a workerâ€™s market, and therefore get paid the minimum wageâ€¦ inflation though waits for no Senate bill, and has been rapidly eroding the buying power of single job workers in rural communities.
While it is admirable that the Senate has given up their scheduled pay increase for this year, it is unconscionable for them to ignore the fact that inflation over the past eight years has made the minimum wage unlivable. It is also hard to imagine the reason why the Republicans would snub workers from states that have been so kind to them at the polls over the past ten years. Adding to this the rocket ship of oil and gas prices that is driving inflation rates this year (and likely many years to come) and the reasoning for denying an increase to minimum wage becomes completely counterintuitive. The longer we wait to adjust minimum wage for cost of living and inflation increases, the more people we are going to have who are going to slip into poverty because they need to work more than one job just to live. And workers who have to take more than one job are not able to do things like take job training classes or finish a degree to improve themselves so that they no longer have to settle for the lowest common denominator of pay rates.