If Wyoming Republicans actually wanted to show that their party’s conservative agenda works, the first thing they would do in the upcoming legislative session is raise the state’s minimum wage.
Please don’t laugh. I know that sounds far-fetched, given the GOP’s history of doggedly fighting against minimum wage hikes, both here and nationally. Republicans have found it’s much more politically expedient to spout the same tired rhetoric that for years has dominated every legislative discussion of the issue, which is to loudly proclaim it’s a job killer.
After devoting all of 10 minutes to the issue early during last year’s budget session, Republicans voted 51-9 to kill a bill sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) to raise the state’s minimum wage from a paltry $5.15 to at least $9 an hour. The lopsided margin halted all talk about the minimum wage in the Capitol; at the same time it was quickly climbing near the top of the Democrats’ national priorities — which only made conservatives hate the idea even more.
But if you take the time to think about the impact such an action would have on our economy, state government budgets and the societal changes it would likely cause, a minimum wage hike could help the GOP accomplish many of its stated goals.
First, let’s get rid of the negatives that have led Republicans to shoot down minimum wage proposals. While the job-killer label has been so successful a claim that most people don’t even question that it’s true, it hasn’t been the experience of an increasing number of cities and states that now have a higher minimum wage.
Republicans maintain such a hike would unquestionably be a scourge to small businesses, because higher payroll will automatically force them to either fire current workers and/or throw away any future plans to expand.
But if all it did was reduce the number of jobs and stifle growth, why would 29 states have enacted laws in the past year to increase the minimum wage? In the 20 states where the laws became effective on Jan. 1, an estimated 3 million workers received a raise to help lift them out of poverty.
Four states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — passed voter initiatives to raise the minimum wage in their states. Illinois used the ballot process to recommend its state lawmakers take the same action.
Five states don’t have any minimum wage on the books. However, of the 45 that do, only Wyoming and Georgia have a minimum that’s less than the federal one at $7.25 per hour. While other states have been raising their minimum wages, both Wyoming and Georgia have kept theirs of $5.15 an hour.
Because the highest federal or state rate takes precedence, Wyoming opponents of an increase argue that virtually all workers in the state already get $7.25 an hour. However, that’s not true. A worker in any occupation that is not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act is subject to the state minimum, not the federal. An employee at a business that makes less than $500,000 annually and does not engage in interstate commerce is not covered by the federal minimum wage.
There are also exceptions to the law. There are no minimums for such categories as agricultural workers, domestic servants or employees of educational, charitable, religious or nonprofit organizations.
Employees who are tipped more than $30 a month are also subject to a minimum wage in Wyoming of only $2.13 an hour. If such workers do not make enough in tips to meet at least the state or federal minimum wage for other workers in their category, employers are required by law to make up the difference.
But many tipped employees are either not aware of the provision or do not want to risk their jobs, so they don’t file such claims. When jobs are scarce, workers realize others are lined up and willing to work for below the minimum wage.
If few workers are subject to the $5.15 minimum, why are so many industries — especially motels and restaurants — so active in lobbying against a state raise up to the federal minimum?
Opponents of Rep. Byrd’s bill and similar proposals over the years have argued increasing the minimum wage will keep business owners from hiring young and inexperienced workers they don’t believe are worth a higher hourly rate. They try to make it sound like the only people who receive the minimum wage are high school students who need summer jobs.
Again, that’s simply not true. More than half of all minimum wage earners are over the age of 25, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 30 percent of those workers are over the age of 34, and 20 percent are over the age of 44. These are people who, if they are lucky enough to get full-time work, earn about $14,500 a year, which puts them below the federal poverty level and often living in their parents’ basement or in a car, with no hope of having a home of their own. And if they are trying to raise a family, the gap between the poverty line and how much they make just grows bigger as the family expands.
Here’s where the conservative Republican approach to governing and their belief in taking responsibility for one’s lot in life can align with the value of raising the minimum wage.
In evaluating President Barack Obama’s proposal to raise the hourly federal minimum wage to $10.10, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said by the second half of 2016, about 16.5 million people would have higher incomes, while 500,000 would be jobless.
But that half-million who are unemployed would not necessarily stay out of work. Chad Stone, chief economist for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote a column for U.S. News & World Report in February that noted an increase in the minimum wage means a larger number of low-wage workers “would experience income losses from slightly longer unemployment spells — and that those losses would be more than offset by earning a higher wage while working.”
Stone predicted an increase to at least $10 an hour would add $60 billion to the U.S. economy over the next two years. Far from being a job killer, the move would be a real economic boost for our country that would result in many current low-wage earners able to afford more products that companies make. Job growth would be a natural result in many economic sectors.
Republicans like to remind us that small businesses remain the backbone of this country. They should realize, then, that the increased purchasing power of low-wage workers will help stimulate the economy and benefit the kind of small businesses that were hit hardest by the major recession that began in 2008. Meanwhile, is there anybody who seriously believes a huge company like Wal-mart can’t afford to increase its minimum pay to at least $10 an hour?
Here’s another key reason why Wyoming lawmakers who continually stress the value of work in society should support a healthy minimum wage hike. If more families could actually sustain themselves on what they make and need less government assistance for housing, food, health care and other expenses, it would significantly reduce state budgets. It should also reduce the cries from conservatives who complain the needy are gobbling up all of the taxpayers’ money.
Finally, Republicans like to tout themselves as the party of family values, whatever that means. They bemoan the fact we aren’t living like Ozzie and Harriet did in the 1950s, when dad went to work while mother stayed at home watching the kids. If more families were not dependent on both spouses going to work at two or three part-time, low-paying jobs just to survive, more American families might be able to spend quality time with their children.
In reality, a higher minimum wage is actually a job creator instead of a job killer, and having more money active in the economy helps small businesses stay afloat. Less money spent on government assistance programs means healthier state budgets, and could also result in more parents spending time with their families.
Sounds like a conservative’s dream, doesn’t it?
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