The last time Congress voted to raise the minimum wage was in 1996, to its current level of $5.15. For a 40-hour workweek, that amounts to $206 per week and $10,700 per year -- $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.
That's not enough even to get by, and not nearly enough to get ahead. When parents working 40, 50, or 60 hours a week cannot afford health care or decent housing, or save even modest amounts for their children's future, America is not fulfilling its core values as a nation.
A minimum wage increase enjoys broad support across the country and the political spectrum. In this month's elections, voters in six states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Ohio and Nevada) voted to raise their state minimum wages by as much as $1.70 and index them to inflation annually. That brings to 29 the number of states that have established minimum wages higher than $5.15. Unfortunately, Washington has not gotten the message that a fair minimum wage is key to a strong and vibrant economy where everyone has a chance at success.
For the past 10 years, opponents of a minimum wage increase have warned that higher wages lead to fewer jobs. But data and experience prove that these fears are unfounded. The modest minimum wage increases that states have implemented have had no significant impact on overall employment levels. And from the perspective of employers, higher wages could boost employee morale, reduce turnover and make businesses generally more productive.
While some minimum wage earners are younger workers whose livelihood may not depend solely on the wages they earn, the vast majority of those who will benefit from a minimum wage increase are single mothers and heads of households, who do depend on a biweekly paycheck to support their children. Survey data show that a minimum wage increase would benefit 4.5 million women, including 3 million mothers and 623,000 single mothers/heads of households. While women make up only 48 percent of the U.S. work force, they represent 61 percent of those who stand to benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.
American companies will no doubt see an increase in some of their labor costs with an increase in the minimum wage. For example, in Cooper Hotels' 21 hotels in the United States, including 10 across Tennessee, housekeepers and kitchen workers (who are currently paid well above the $5.15 minimum wage) would receive a pay increase to meet the $7.25 hourly wage that has been proposed or just to stay in the same relative position on the hotel's pay scale.
Regardless of this financial obligation, a minimum wage increase would be good for business. It would foster a healthy relationship between companies and employees, which is essential to fulfilling customers' expectations. On a more fundamental level, employers share in the responsibility of helping all hard-working, full-time employees support their children.
Millions of minimum wage workers in the restaurant, retail, health care, construction and janitorial industries have earned a substantial raise. While the minimum wage is not the only answer to poverty in America, it provides a foundation for upward mobility. No employee who works full time should have to live in poverty, and every child of a minimum wage worker deserves an equal shot at the American dream.
Raising the minimum wage is a priority that should unite both political parties. And it provides an opportunity for the new Democratic Congress and President Bush to put politics behind them and deliver immediate results.
U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. represents Tennessee's 9th Congressional District. Pace Cooper is president/CEO of Memphis-based Cooper Companies, which owns and operates 21 hotels in nine states.