By Rev. Rebekah Jordan
Memphis Commercial Appeal, Special to Viewpoints, July 24, 2007
Today, minimum wage workers will finally start receiving something they've been waiting a decade for: a raise. The 10 years during which the U.S. Congress blocked a minimum wage increase was the longest period without a raise since the wage floor was established in 1938.
Today's increase in the minimum wage, from $5.15 an hour to $5.85, is the first of three steps that will raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour in July 2009. But today's raise is certainly modest, and will still leave full-time workers in poverty.
The increase is not nearly enough to ensure that all the hard-working people of the Mid-South earn a living wage. Yet it is a sign that politicians are finally beginning to hear the message that a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.
As a person who has worked with thousands of other Memphians over the last four years to press our local, state and federal officials to make jobs pay living wages, the action of Congress to finally raise the minimum wage brings mixed emotions. Contrary to what critics say, the eventual raise to $7.25 will improve daily life for a significant number of Tennessee workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 153,000 Tennesseans will directly benefit from the raise, and another 294,000 workers in our state will benefit overall, because of pay raises many companies are likely to make in order to retain workers who are already earning around $7.25 an hour.
But even this much-needed raise is paltry compared with the cost of basic items like rent, food and transportation here in Memphis. Could you pay the rent and utilities, put food on the table and get transportation to work with a little over $1,000 a month? That's the challenge that minimum-wage workers face, even with today's raise.
That's why it is essential that today's raise energizes, rather than quells, the growing grass-roots movement to eliminate poverty wages. Our state legislators and members of Congress must understand that low-wage workers and people of conscience see this federal increase as a first step on the road to living wages, not as a resolution of the wage crisis.
Wages are a bedrock moral issue. Where we as a community, a state and a nation peg our lowest wages reflects whether we think of workers as just another cost of production like machinery, or whether we believe workers are human beings who have inherent dignity and the fundamental right to basic needs like food, shelter and health care.
This is why people of faith were among the leaders of the successful campaigns to pass living wage ordinances in Memphis and Shelby County. This is why national faith-based organizations like Let Justice Roll were able to galvanize religious involvement in pushing for dozens of state minimum wage increases that have taken place over the past two years, as well as the campaign to raise the federal wage.
It is clear that paying workers a just wage for their labor fulfills the commands of numerous faith traditions, but will a raise for those at the bottom hurt the bottom line of businesses? Evidence from past state and federal minimum wage increases indicates the answer is no. Studies by the Fiscal Policy Institute and others show that states that have minimum wages higher than the federal have actually had more growth in the number of employees at small businesses. Perhaps that is why two out of three small business owners supported an increase in the minimum wage in a survey conducted by Small Business Majority in 2006.
A minimum wage that doesn't even reach the poverty level shortchanges workers, and it undermines the long-term health of businesses, communities, our economy and our nation. As Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, has stated, "We all lose when American workers are underpaid. When businesses don't pay a living wage all society pays. We pay through poverty and needless disease, disability and death from inadequate health care. We pay as women struggle to put food on the table. We pay as businesses and communities suffer economic decline."
Today presents a new opportunity for those of us who want to reward work with adequate wages. Congress would not have passed this modest raise without the grass-roots political pressure on the wage issue that came to a head during the last election. As citizens we have demonstrated our power on the wage issue at local, state and federal levels. Now it is time to use this power to keep our elected officials focused on making work pay, until all workers earn a living wage.
Rev. Rebekah Jordan is executive director of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice.
Copyright 2007, commercialappeal.com - Memphis, TN