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Raise up Wisconsin with a higher minimum wage

 Jennifer Epps-Addison

Record-high corporate profits and CEO salaries are soaking up more of the wealth than ever, while worker wages remain flat. Family-supporting jobs have disappeared and been replaced by low wage work. Economists predict that by 2020, almost half of all jobs will pay poverty-level wages.

In response, fast food and retail workers captivated Americans by striking for $15 in roughly 150 cities across the country, including half a dozen local communities supported by Wisconsin Jobs Now. The growing movement is forcing the issue of economic inequality front and center with a militancy that invokes Dr. King’s final crusade for economic justice during his “Poor People’s Campaign” nearly 45 years ago.

Moved by the courage of striking workers, prominent leaders like President Obama are calling income inequality, “the defining issue of our time.” Pope Francis called inequality “a new tyranny” created by free market fundamentalism, and called for a moral economy where all workers receive a “living wage” sufficient to support a family. Amongst prominent economists, including Nobel Laureates, a consensus exists that inequality is a serious threat to our economy and that raising wages is the best solution.

Anyone who has recently gone to the grocery store can attest that prices are skyrocketing and wages are not keeping up. It’s past time for higher pay. Thankfully, some leaders in Wisconsin have heard workers’ demands. Last week, State Representative Cory Mason introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act to raise Wisconsin’s minimum wage to a modest $10.10 while indexing it to inflation. Had the minimum wage kept pace with gains in worker productivity over the preceding decades it would be roughly $17. Had it grown in parallel with the wealth of the richest 1 percent, it would be about $30. At a time when Wisconsin’s median wage lags behind the rest of the country, there is no more urgent action legislators can take to help working families.

It’s our obligation to transform the fast food, retail, and other service jobs that can’t be outsourced into good jobs. Our economy needs it. Consumer spending makes up seventy percent of our economy, yet stagnant wages mean consumers spend less, holding back economic growth. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that if Wisconsin raised its minimum wage to $10 nearly 600,000 workers would benefit.  These increased wages would inject $645 million into our local economy and create thousands of new jobs. The only question remaining is if $10 is enough. That won’t stop workers’ opponents from claiming that minimum wage increases lower employment. They assert that higher wages hurt workers, but say nothing about CEOs who triple their compensation without paying enough for their employees to live without public assistance. Academic research, summarized by scholar Andrijat Dube, shows that raising the minimum wage has no impact on employment.

Opponents also claim that low wage jobs are only filled by teenagers, even though 80 percent of Wisconsinites that would benefit from raising the minimum wage are over the age of 20. They say low wage jobs are only temporary, but forget that the fastest growing occupations are low paying and increasing filled by parents. With more than 70 percent of voters supporting higher minimum wages and 30 states and cities poised to take action, corporate interests and their politicians fear that the majority of Americans will decide this issue without them.

Legislators and Governor Walker should support Representative Mason’s bill. While $10.10 per hour is not enough for workers to raise themselves and their families out poverty, passing a significant increase to the minimum wage is the first step toward establishing economic security for working people.

Jennifer Epps-Addison is the executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, a community organization that fights for economic justice.