As Americans, we believe that honest work should be rewarded with honest wages. That certainly means that no one who works full time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. And in the coming weeks, your senators will have a chance to stand up for that principle by voting yes or no on a bill to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour.
It’s important to remember that most workers who would get a raise when Congress passes this bill aren’t teenagers taking on their first job. They average 35 years old. A majority of lower-wage jobs are held by women. Many of these Americans work full-time to support a family, and if the minimum wage had kept pace with our workers’ productivity, they’d be earning well over $10 an hour today.
Instead, the minimum wage is stuck at $7.25, and when Congress refuses to raise it, it loses its value as the cost of living goes up. Today, the minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan took office. And over the past year alone, congressional inaction was the equivalent of a $200 pay cut. For the typical minimum-wage worker, $200 is a month of groceries or two months of electricity. It makes a big difference to a lot of families.
The good news is that the American people are way ahead of Washington on this issue. In the year since I first asked Congress to raise the minimum wage, six states passed laws to raise theirs. Just last week, Connecticut became the first state to adopt a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, and more states, cities and counties are working to raise their minimum wages in 2014.
Profitable businesses like Shake Shack, which starts its employees at $9.50 an hour, and Costco, where workers make at least $11.50, pay higher wages too — not out of charity, but because it reduces employee turnover, boosts productivity and improves the bottom line. In the two months since my State of the Union Address, in which I asked more business leaders to do what they can to raise their workers’ wages, I’ve heard more stories of employers who’ve chosen to take that step — an ice-cream parlor in Florida, a marketing agency in Georgia, a pizzeria in St. Louis. Last month, the Gap decided to raise its base wages, which will boost wages for 65,000 workers in the U.S., and I’ve heard from small-business owners across our country who have decided to give their workers a raise as well.
In the absence of action from Congress, I’ve acted to give more hardworking Americans a raise by signing an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour. It will be good for America’s bottom line, too. And it’s the right thing to do — for if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, this country should pay you a wage you can live on.
But there’s still only one group of people who can lift wages for the entire country, and that’s Congress. The bill that the Senate will vote on would boost America’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Its effect would raise wages not just for minimum-wage workers, but for nearly 493,500 people in Minnesota and 28 million Americans across our country. It would lift millions out of poverty immediately, and help millions more work their way out of poverty, without requiring any new taxes or spending. It will give businesses more customers with more money to spend. It will grow the economy for everyone.
That’s why nearly three in four Americans support raising the minimum wage. But Republicans in Congress stand in lock-step opposition. Some even want to scrap the minimum wage entirely. One Republican congressman said he would vote to repeal it if he had the chance. These arguments aren’t new. Opponents of the minimum wage have been using them for years. And time and again, they have been proven wrong. Raising the minimum wage is good for businesses, good for workers and good for our entire economy.
So instead of voting for the equivalent of yet another pay cut for America’s workers, Republicans in Congress should join an increasing number of states, cities and businesses, and a clear majority of the American people. Americans don’t want handouts — what we want is a paycheck that lets us support our families, feel a little economic security, and pass down some hope and optimism to our kids. That’s not something to stand in the way of. It’s something to stand up for.
But it’s only going to happen if we all demand it. So tell your senator to put people’s paychecks over partisan politics — and give America a raise.
Barack Obama is president of the United States.