Inflation has hit a 40-year high in the United States, and families are struggling to keep afloat. But the water keeps rising, as wages remain the same.
Since Congress last raised the federal minimum wage in 2009, it has lost at least 21% of its value. Now, millions of workers who earn less than $15 an hour are in crisis mode and are “finding it impossible to trim other costs enough to be still able to put food on the table and fill the tank,” writes Gina Cummings in an opinion article. Cummings is the vice president of Advocacy, Alliances and Policy for Oxfam America.
Oxfam’s new research shows that around 32% of workers in the US earn less than $15 an hour — nearly 52 million people are trying to make it on less than $31,200 a year, or $2,600 a month before taxes.
Cummings remarks, “This is not right, nor is it viable — not for working families, for the economy or for communities. We can’t keep an economy going if people can’t pay the rent and drive to work. That’s why Congress must pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which would gradually increase the wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2025 and would tie increases to median wage growth over time.”
Cummings also adds that this is a civil rights crisis. Women and people of color are among the marginalized communities most historically affected by low wages.
“Not only did these workers get hit harder, longer and deeper by the pandemic, they’ve been watching their wages buy less each day, as they account for a vastly disproportionate share of the low-wage workforce — 40% of women versus 25% of men. Half of all women of color earn under $15 per hour versus a quarter of all men. And while 26% of White workers earn less than $15 an hour, 46% of Hispanic/Latinx workers and 47% of Black workers earn less than $15 per hour. These are the people suffering the worst sticker shock at the grocery store and the gas pump, choosing between rent and utilities,” Cummings explains.
Under federal law, US employers are still allowed to pay subminimum wages to their workers. Passing the Raise the Wage Act would prohibit workers from being paid less than the minimum wage.
Cummings describes this as a solution that is “long overdue.” The minimum wage was last increased almost 13 years ago.
She adds, “It’s also common sense: The pandemic filled the coffers of corporations, which made record profits, and created many more millionaires and billionaires. Why are we refusing to mandate that the people who do the work, who are responsible for productivity and profitability, get a slightly fairer share of the rewards?
People are hurting not because prices are rising but because we have built a system that enables employers to exploit workers so a few can cash in. We should be focusing more on threadbare incomes than on prices. We can fix it, and we must.”
Opinions expressed by California Gazette contributors are their own.