Low-income advocates pressing for a higher minimum wage told two Minnesota congressmen Monday that they are falling farther behind on their bills and that the American dream is increasingly out of reach.
"I have paid my taxes and gone to college, yet here I am making $7.25 an hour," said Darcy Landau, an airport worker. "I owe $80,000 in student loans, and am between a rock and a hard place."
Advocates are intensifying pressure on Minnesota legislators to raise the state's minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2015, up from a $6.15 base hourly wage for large employers. The fight to raise the minimum wage stands to be one of the most high-profile issues of the upcoming legislative session.
DFLers control the Legislature, and most agree that the state's base wage should be higher, but they can't agree how high.
Many rural DFLers don't want to raise it so high that it hurts businesses in border communities, where rival businesses in neighboring states could gain a price advantage from paying lower wages.
Many Republicans and business groups have fought hard against raising the wage, saying companies will have to operate with fewer workers at the higher wage.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a DFLer who represents northern Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District, said the nation's economy is evolving rapidly in a way that hurts workers at the bottom end of the wage scale.
"The rich are getting rich, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class are getting crushed," Nolan told the crowd at a community center in south Minneapolis. "It is the tax policy, the allocation of money in the budget and of course it is the minimum wage. That is the best place to start."
At $6.15 per hour, Minnesota has one of the nation's lowest minimum wages. Most Minnesota employers are required to meet the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. About 93,000 Minnesotans earn at or below the federal minimum wage.
Enrique Barcenas, a contract cleaner at a local retailer, said he and others have approached management about raises. While managers remain sympathetic, he said, wages have remained the same.
"With a wage of $8, it is impossible to survive," Barcenas said. "Words don't mean much to us because words don't put food on the table."
Nolan and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a DFLer who represents Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District, support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.50 an hour.
"You have got to be able to feed your family working one job," Ellison said. "It's a matter of political will and the decisions we have made that allowed us to drift away from the American dream."
Ellison urged attendees to contact their state legislators and press for a higher wage. He said the GOP plan of lowering government spending and driving down wages "doesn't work. It failed."
Liane Gale, a Green Party activist, criticized Nolan and Ellison for not pressing for an even higher wage, something closer to what many consider a living wage.
"Nine-fifty will not lift anybody out of poverty," Gale said. "Nine-fifty is not addressing the dignity of any worker here in Minnesota."
Ellison told the audience that people can debate what the minimum wage should be, "but can we all agree and can we all convince our neighbors to agree the minimum wage needs to go up?"
Gale was not convinced, interrupting: "This is a one-shot opportunity."