How Raising the Minimum Wage Can Bring Dignity to Latino Workers
By Albert Jacquez
In 1968, when adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage was $11.50 per hour. Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. That means that if you earned that wage and worked 40 hours a week, you would take home about $1037.43 a month after taxes. According to ApartmentList.com, the national median rent for a single bedroom apartment is $959 a month, so after paying rent, you would be left with $78.43 to spend on food, medical care, transportation, utilities, and everything else.
Think about it — $78.43. That’s not even enough for the average household electric bill.
To add insult to injury, even though we are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and record-high levels of chief executive salaries, the minimum wage has not changed from $7.25 in over a decade. This situation exacerbates income inequality, which starts at the very top. According to Forbes, CEOs now make an average of 361 times the salary of their average worker. This is a stark change from 1950 when the average CEO made 20 times the average salary of their employees.
While minimum wage workers are often characterized as mostly teenagers or younger workers, this is a false stereotype. According to theEconomic Policy Institute,the average age of workers who would benefit from a raise in the minimum wage is 35 years old.The same source stated, “Today, workers who earn the federal minimum wage make about 29 percent less per hour than their counterparts made 50 years ago, after adjusting for inflation.”Similarly, PEW Researchfound that “Since [the minimum wage] was last raised in 2009, the federal minimum has lost about 9.6% of its purchasing power to inflation.” This means that the minimum wage today has less value than in 2009.
It is no wonder that many minimum wage workers work two or three jobs — just to be able to afford their medication, keep the lights on, and put food on the table.
Despite the challenges of today, the United States has a proud history as a pioneer in advancing the well-being of working families. And in the battles for economic empowerment, Latinos have been on the forefront. From Cesar Chavez’s organization of farm workers to demand fairer wages for backbreaking work, to Tom Perez’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Labor under President Obama, Latinos have fought, and will continue to fight, for the prosperity of all Americans.
This week, the House passed the Raise the Wage Act, which if signed into law would give nearly 40 million Americans who earn less than $15 per hour a much-needed pay raise. That would include more than 8.5 million Latinos, or about 34 percent of all Hispanic workers. This uplift is paramount for Hispanic communities across the country. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers of color are far more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers. In 2017, 8.6 percent of white workers were paid hourly wages that would leave them below the federal poverty guideline even if they worked full-time and year-round, compared to 19.2 percent for Hispanics. In other words, nearly one in five Hispanic workers are paid a poverty wage. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Hispanics had the highest civilian labor force participation rate of any ethnic group in 2016, a trend that is expected to continue at least until 2026. As such, a raise in the minimum wage would have a significant, positive effect on the lives of this workforce. Given that Latinos are concentrated in low-wage jobs with little benefits and security, the Raise the Wage Act would also help close the gender gap. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “For every $1 a White man earns, a Hispanic woman earns 53 cents.” The legislation would do much to ensure that men and women are treated as the equals that they are.
In addition to helping workers, increasing the minimum wage would be good for the U.S. economy. A study conducted by economists on behalf of theNational Bureau of Economic Research found that “minimum-wage increases occurring over more than three-and-a-half decades resulted in higher wages for low-skilled workers, with no reduction in low-wage employment five years out.” This combats the fear of unemployment rates rising and provides powerful evidence that raising the minimum wage will not cause broad economic harm.
Nowhere in America today can a full-time worker making the federal minimum wage afford the basic needs of life. With Latinos occupying a large portion of these low-income jobs, our communities will be in the front lines as we fight to make our economic system more just. And in the end, allAmericans — from the coasts, to the borders, to the heartland — will be better for it.
Albert Jacquez is the Executive Director of UnidosUS Action Fund.