Yesterday was the anniversary of the last federal minimum wage increase—for seven years, it has remained at $7.25. Given the breakneck pace of state and local action—26 states, the District of Columbia, and at least 25 cities have ushered in higher minimum wages in the past two-and-a-half years—it’s easy to let the federal minimum wage fade in the nation’s rearview mirror, perched atop a distant do-nothing Capitol Hill.
But in 21 states, low-wage workers are still stuck at $7.25 per hour. That means 57 million workers—nearly 40 percent of our workforce—work in a state where the minimum wage is well beneath the federal poverty level for a family of two. What’s worse, at least 14 states have gone so far as to pass preemptive legislation that prohibits local areas from enacting their own minimum wage policies.
Low-paid workers in these states aren’t simply being denied a long-overdue raise—they’re actually losing purchasing power. Because the minimum wage has not been indexed to keep pace with inflation, minimum wage workers are falling further behind every day that Congress fails to act.
In fact, a minimum wage earner in a $7.25 state who is working full-time, year-round would have to clock an additional 244 hours each year just to take home the same annual pay she did in a single year in 2009, after adjusting for inflation. Put another way, she’d need an extra 31 working days—more than six weeks—just to maintain her earnings from seven years ago.
For all our ingenuity, we haven’t yet figured out how to cram more days into a year. So, until we master the magic of time dilation, every year that Congress fails to raise the minimum wage will effectively mean another pay cut for workers in these states—and with it, a greater struggle to make ends meet.
The American people have made it abundantly clear where they stand on minimum wages. By wide majorities, voters on both sides of the political aisle—including small business owners, who occupy a special place in the rhetoric of many politicians—support raising the wage above $7.25. The research agrees: In the past, minimum-wage policy has proven an effective tool for increasing earnings and reducing poverty among working families—as well as increasing productivity and reducing turnover in the workplace—without leading to job loss.
Only one group seems to have missed the memo on America’s eagerness for higher wages: conservative lawmakers. In 2014, they rejected the Miller-Harkin bill, which would have raised the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, with the congressional vote split almost perfectly along party lines. And so far no conservatives are among the 32 senators and 160 representatives co-sponsoring the federal $12 by 2020 bill that was introduced last year.
On this seventh anniversary of federal wage stagnation, policymakers should resolve not to let another July 25—another 7/25—go by with any workers in our nation still subsisting on $7.25. Federal lawmakers have an increasingly urgent responsibility to reach out to the millions of workers whose state legislatures refuse stand up for—or worse, actively stand in the way of—their right to be paid a decent wage for a hard day’s work. If we do not, struggling workers—surrounded by the rising costs of making ends meet in America—will be left further and further behind.