NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s not that often that Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah fall so close together on the calendar. This year they are but three days apart, providing an opportunity for some introspection on an issue that should be of concern to the entire American Jewish community: the pitiful state of the federal minimum wage.
The federal minimum wage isn’t a living wage. At $7.25 an hour, today’s full-time minimum-wage worker makes just $15,080 a year. Even in a family with two people working minimum-wage jobs, household income hovers at the poverty level. And that’s assuming they are lucky enough to have full-time jobs.
Moreover, the makeup of minimum-wage workers has changed. James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker earlier this month, noted a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones showing that “low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever.”
“More important,” Surowiecki wrote, “more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families.”
Meanwhile, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has plummeted. From January 1981 to April 1990, the federal minimum wage was never raised. In 2007, Congress raised the federal minimum wage by $2.10, to $7.25 per hour, as a first step toward restoring it to its historic value. But for the minimum wage to have the same purchasing power it had back in 1968, it would have to be more than $10 per hour now.
American Jews should remember the situation confronting so many of our ancestors, who could earn only poverty wages in the garment trades and other sectors when they first arrived in the United States.
The challenges confronting those in minimum-wage jobs today are no less daunting. They are the workers who care for our elderly parents, wash our cars, pick our produce, clean our offices and work at fast-food restaurants. The vast majority work multiple minimum-wage jobs to support their families and they are still struggling, faced with terrible choices over which bills to pay — rent or heat, groceries or medicine — that none among us should be forced to make.
A comprehensive study by the Economic Policy Institute points out the benefits of raising the minimum wage. An increase to $10.10 by July 1, 2015 would raise the wages of about 30 million workers, who would receive more than $51 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period, increase gross domestic product by roughly $32.6 billion and create a net gain of 140,000 new jobs.
It would not, as many conservatives claim, kill jobs. Moreover, it would be an important first step in closing the widening income gap.
So we need to raise the federal minimum wage. Yet much of the business sector and its allies continue to stymie even modest attempts to lift minimum-wage workers out of poverty.
Why? Essentially because they can.
Two years ago, former Smith Barney director Desmond Lachman told The New York Times, “Corporations are taking huge advantage of the slack in the labor market — they are in a very strong position and workers are in a very weak position. They are using that bargaining power to cut benefits and wages, and to shorten hours.”
Of course, not all the blame for low-wage workers lies with the businesses that employ them. The consuming public also plays a role. Too often, we fail to make the link between low prices and widespread poverty.
Some states, frustrated by the inability of Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, have raised the minimum wage locally. But this needs to be done nationally — and it needs to be done now.
In Parshat Shoftim, the Torah proclaims, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” If we are to provide a measure of justice where it counts to the least well-paid among us, we have to do our part to support an increase in the federal minimum wage. We must partner with others to ensure it happens. We need to talk about it with our friends, families and neighbors.
We in the Jewish Labor Committee are proud to be part of this campaign and encourage the wider community to join. It’s the right and just thing to do.
(Stuart Appelbaum is the president of the Jewish Labor Committee and president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, UFCW.)