Republican Senator John Thune has rejected an effort from congressional Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, pointing to his $6 or less hourly wages that he earned working at a restaurant as a “kid”.
The senator from South Dakota – where the state-level minimum wage is set at $9.45 – said that raising “the minimum wage is something that is particularly troubling and harmful, at a time when you’re trying to get people back to work ... because it drives up the cost of hiring people” during economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
Congressional Republicans have objected to efforts to raise the federal minimum – which is even lower for tipped workers – as part of a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package proposed by the White House and due tor a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday.
Mr Thune, who is 60 years old, said he “started bussing tables at $1 an hour, I went up to $2.25 when they moved me up in the place, then I finally made it to cook, which was big time, that was $6 an hour.”
The senator graduated from Jones County High School in Murdo, South Dakota in 1979, when a $6 hourly wage – adjusted to modern inflation rates – would amount to roughly $23 in 2021 dollars.
Full-time workers earning the current federal minimum wage earn roughly $15,000 a year before taxes. The poverty line for single-person households is $12,880, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Under a proposed $15 an hour wage, minimum wage workers would earn roughly $31,200 a year.
The Independent has requested comment from Mr Thune’s office.
Senator Roger Marshall also said he had a “great part-time job” through high school and junior college to “supplement his income and helped me not have any debt when I finished college as well.”
The senator graduated from Kansas State University in 1984, when the average tuition for a four-year public university nationally was roughly $1,150. That cost is now more than $20,000 as of the 2017-2018 school year.
In 2019, 82.3 million US workers aged 16 and older were paid at hourly rates, representing 58.1 per cent of all wage and salary workers, according to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics.
Nearly 400,000 of those workers earned “exactly the prevailing federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour” while 1.2 million Americas earned wages below the federal minimum.
Raising the federally set minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour would lift nearly 1 million people out of poverty and raise wages for millions of Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Seven states and Washington DC have passed legislation to raise their minimum wages to $15, but $7.25 an hour remains the minimum wage in 21 other states. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee don’t have a state-set minimum wage, instead relying on the federal rate. Georgia and Wyoming have set their minimum to just $5.15, lower than the federal rate, which applies instead.
The Economic Policy Institute reported that the minimum wage, if adjusted for inflation, should have exceeded $15 by 2020.
“Yet since the late 1960s, lawmakers have let the value of the minimum wage erode, allowing inflation to gradually reduce the buying power of a minimum wage income,” according to a 2019 report.
The gradual increases in the years that followed have been too small to meet the decline in wage value after 1968, when the minimum wage peaked at its inflation-adjusted terms, the organisation reported.
A $7.25 wage in 2018 was worth 14.8 per cent less than when it was last raised nearly 10 years earlier, after adjusting for inflation, and 28.6 per cent below its peak value in 1968, when the minimum wage was the equivalent of $10.15 in 2018 dollars, the report found.
“This decline in purchasing power means low-wage workers have to work longer hours now just to achieve the standard of living that was considered the bare minimum half a century ago,” according to the report.
Republican senators Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney have proposed the Higher Wages for American Workers Act, which would raise the federal hourly minimum from $7.25 to $10 over a five-year period.
The plan would only raise wages for roughly 3 per cent of American workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
“It is unconscionable that we should pay the lowest-wage workers today less than what they earned five decades ago, while the economy’s productivity has more than doubled over the last 50 years,” analysis argued.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies