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‘Moral imperative’: Bernie Sanders and Democrats introduce $15 minimum wage bill

Incoming Budget Committee chairman intends to pass legislation through budget reconciliation process without Republican support

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 26 January 2021 17:54 GMT
Related video: Biden says 'we cannot let people go hungry. That is not who we are'
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Senator Bernie Sanders and congressional Democrats have introduced legislation to gradually raise the federally set hourly minimum wage from its current $7.25 to $15 by 2025.

The progressive senator from Vermont, now chairing the Senate’s Budget Committee, said the Raise the Wage Act “can and must" be passed through a filibuster-proof procedural effort of budget reconciliation, which will need just 51 votes to pass.

The senator said: “Now is not the time for excuses. Now is not the time for more talk. Now is the time for action.”

Representative Pramila Jayapal said it is a “moral imperative” to “immediately” raise the minimum wage.

Seven states and Washington DC – with populations that encompass roughly one-third of American workers – have passed legislation to raise their minimum wages to $15. New York, California and Massachusetts became the first states to do so.

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.

In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office reported that a $15 federal minimum wage would raise incomes for 27 million Americans. A wage hike would immediately lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty, including 600,000 children, and give raises to nearly one-third of all Black workers and one-quarter of Latino workers, the report found.

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.

The Raise the Wage Act would add $2.25 to the federal minimum every year through 2025. After that, the wage would be indexed to median wage growth.

Congressman Bobby Scott’s legislation also would gradually phase out minimum wages for tipped workers to reach the full federal minimum.

“Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the $7.25 federal minimum wage was economically and morally indefensible,” the congressman said in a statement accompanying text of the bill. “Now, the pandemic is highlighting the gross imbalance between the productivity of our nation’s workers and the wages they are paid. ”

Senator Sanders called the current wage a “starvation wage” that does not lift even full-time workers from poverty.

“I think $15 an hour over a period of four years will improve life substantially for millions and millions of workers,” he said.

The bill has support from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Asked whether he believes the senate has 50 affirmative votes, plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, Senator Sanders said: "I absolutely believe that we do."

During a campaign event in October to support a minimum wage increase, Ms Harris said that “raising the minimum wage is about the floor and not the ceiling”.

“There is this suggestion we’ve heard in certain circles – ‘if you extend this they won’t know what to do with the money,'" she said. “Because there is this ugly premise that people who are low income or poor choose to be that way, or don’t have the same ethics everyone else has, or are irresponsible. And this is part of what’s wrong with the way we have crafted economic policy when it comes to what is morally right on a global scale.”

President Joe Biden has signed an executive order to push for a $15 minimum wage for federal contract workers.

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