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The Avenue

Even a divided America agrees on raising the minimum wage

Editor's Note:

In case you missed it, watch an online event that was held on November 23 with frontline workers and experts on the pay, protections, and policies frontline essential workers still need.

Even with the historic 2020 election behind us, the American electorate seems as divided as ever. The margin of victory separating President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden in several swing states is less than 1%, and if Republicans hang onto one of their two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia during the January runoff election, America will begin next year with a divided government.

Despite this, Election Day proved there is one policy area where Americans are increasingly not divided: raising the minimum wage.

The election results in Florida illustrate this shift in public opinion. A ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage from $8.56 to $15 per hour by 2026 passed with the support of more than 60% of voters. Its success is noteworthy in Florida—a red state with two Republican Senators, a Republican-controlled state legislature, and a Republican governor who opposed the minimum wage hike. Trump secured more than half of the votes in the state, which means that upwards of 1 million Florida voters cast a ballot for the president and for the minimum wage increase.

While Florida’s split vote may seem counterintuitive, in fact, recent polls suggest it is consistent with widespread public opinion. Two-thirds (67%) of Americans surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this position has grown significantly, especially among Republicans and independents. A pair of surveys conducted in February and August showed a surge in support for raising the minimum wage. In the August survey, a majority of Republicans backed raising the minimum wage to a level where full-time workers earn more than poverty wages. Overall, more than seven in 10 respondents supported raising the minimum wage.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh glare on the struggles of low-wage workers, and made the issue of increased wages even more urgent. Low-wage workers have suffered the pandemic’s worst job losses, resulting in deepening financial strain, growing food insecurity, and mounting difficulties to pay bills and rent. As households lose earnings and federal unemployment relief falters, the wages of existing jobs are even more important in sustaining struggling families and bolstering the faltering economy.

COVID-19 has also shifted the types of jobs society views as “essential,” and what workers who hold these jobs deserve to earn. The sacrifices of essential workers on the pandemic’s frontlines have resulted in greater appreciation and respect for their vital—but often low-paid—work.

“We are no longer being seen as bottom feeders, that it’s the only job people can get,” said Courtney Meadows, a 37-year-old grocery store cashier in Beckley, W.Va., in a March interview. “They are seeing these people are valuable. They are literally putting their lives on the line so my family can have food. I have had numerous customers come through my line saying thank you. Thank you for working.”

Matt Milzman, a 29-year-old grocery store cashier in Washington, D.C. echoed this sentiment: “I always kind of knew that we were essential to the functioning of society, but, you know, most people think of us as cogs in a system, not really that essential. I have had people tell me over and over that we absolutely are essential, and they respect what we’re doing and thank me for doing it.”

Even before COVID-19, most Americans agreed that low-wage workers deserved to earn wages that meet their basic needs. As infections soar once again, raising the wages of essential workers who are risking their lives—and their families’ lives—has grown even more urgent.

From grocery workers like Meadows and Milzman, to home health aides, to meatpacking workers and more, the essential jobs that are vital to the country and require workers to risks their lives are disproportionately low-paid. In a recent Brookings report, my colleagues Laura Stateler, Julia Du, and I calculated that, as of 2018, nearly half (47%) of all frontline essential workers earned less than a family-sustaining, living wage. Nationwide, nearly 19 million frontline essential workers earn less than $15 an hour. Black and Latino or Hispanic workers are overrepresented among these frontline essential workers earning low wages.

Even before COVID-19, most Americans agreed that low-wage workers deserved to earn wages that meet their basic needs. As infections soar once again, raising the wages of essential workers who are risking their lives—and their families’ lives—has grown even more urgent.

While state and local governments enact change, the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009.

So far, policy momentum for raising the minimum wage has happened mostly at the state and local levels. At the start of 2020, a record 24 states and 48 cities and counties raised their minimum wages. Eight states and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation to gradually raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour, although only the District has already implemented the change. Encouragingly, recent increases in the minimum wage in several major cities have not resulted in large employment effects that some economists feared.

While state and local governments enact change, the federal minimum wage has remained stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009. In 2019, the House of Representatives passed legislation to raise it to $15 an hour by 2025, but progress has stalled in the face of Republican opposition in the Senate.

But public opinion continues to shift, and the prospects of policy change at the federal level may grow. President-elect Biden singled out a $15 per hour federal minimum wage as a key policy priority for his administration.

As leaders in Washington consider how best to bring the country together after a bitterly contested election, ensuring American workers earn the dignity of a living wage is one issue that promises to unite.

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