Across the country, grassroots campaigns, most prominently Fight for 15, have pushed governments to increase the minimum wage, and companies to take the initiative to raise them even if they aren’t required to. States like New York and California have set a $15 minimum wage, as have cities like Seattle. In the last year, Amazon announced $15-per-hour as its wage floor. But despite this momentum, the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, when it was set at $7.25 per hour. After so many years of stagnation, inflation has eroded the value of this hourly pay to just $6.19. Over the past decade, too, the cost of living in the U.S. has continued to rise, leaving families dependent on the minimum wage struggling.
Democrats in the House and the Senate have introduced a set of companion bills that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024 through gradual, annual increases. The Raise the Wage Act of 2019 has broad support on the left, but backers are prepared to face opposition from conservatives and business leaders, who have profited off keeping wages low (In the past few years, the gulf between regular worker pay and CEO salaries has widened to a margin of 361 to one). Many workers earning lower wages have had to turn to government assistance programs to make ends meet, meaning that taxpayers are essentially having to make up for what companies refuse to provide.
This is just one indication that the low minimum wage is not a tenable situation for the U.S., according to Oxfam America, a nonprofit focused on ending poverty. Raising the minimum wage would boost the economy through equipping people with more spending power, and alleviate some of the burden on taxpayers who fund assistance programs upon which low-wage workers have to depend. And most importantly, it would deliver immediate and tangible benefits to the 40 million workers in America laboring at the minimum wage.
To illustrate just how striking the impact of a higher minimum wage would be, Oxfam America created an interactive map showing how people would benefit across the U.S. (You can play with the data at the bottom of this article.) Using data from the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, Oxfam conducted a state-by-state analysis of what proportion of workers are currently working at the minimum wage, and would benefit from a higher one. Some states, like California and Massachusetts, which have already been pushing a $15 minimum wage, would see very few workers get a raise. But in states like Nevada and Mississippi, where wages are low and many people work minimum-wage jobs, 40.3% and 41.6% of workers, respectively, would see their pay go up.
The impact of a higher minimum wage is especially profound if assessed by demographic. Women and people of color would see, by far, the largest increases. If you filter the Oxfam map to show the percent of all women of color who would benefit from raising the minimum wage, nearly the whole map is dark blue, indicating that over 50% of workers would benefit. In Idaho, for instance, 68.6% of black women would get a raise.
Of course, there are concerns around raising the minimum wage that test cases like Seattle have illustrated. If people’s per-shift pay is higher, one could imagine companies trying to reduce the number of shifts for workers to keep costs low. It’s imperative that wage hikes must be accompanied by legislation protecting workers’ rights to a shift schedule that would afford keeping up with the cost of living.
And it’s arguable that by 2024, when the full wage increase is scheduled to phase in, $15 per hour will no longer be enough because it is so overdue: The Raise the Wage Act should not be a stopping point, but rather a reminder that wages must constantly evolve to keep pace with the economy and support the workers who depend on them.