Gina Cummings is vice president of Advocacy, Alliances and Policy for Oxfam America. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
With inflation hitting a 40-year high in the United States, working families are swimming ever faster in the effort to stay afloat. But the water just keeps rising, as mostly stagnant wages are also rapidly losing value.
The federal minimum wage has lost at least 21% of its value since Congress last raised it in 2009. This has become an emergency for the millions of workers who earn less than $15 an hour and are finding it impossible to trim other costs enough to still be able to put food on the table and fill the tank.
According to new research released by Oxfam, roughly 32% of workers in the US earn less than $15 an hour. Nearly 52 million people are trying to make it on less than $31,200 a year, or $2,600 a month before taxes.
This is not right, nor is it viable — not for working families, for the economy or for communities. We can’t keep an economy going if people can’t pay the rent and drive to work. That’s why Congress must pass the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which would gradually increase the wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 by 2025 and would tie increases to median wage growth over time.
In truth, this a civil rights crisis, as the people most impacted by low wages are historically marginalized populations: women and people of color. Not only did these workers get hit harder, longer and deeper by the pandemic, they’ve been watching their wages buy less each day, as they account for a vastly disproportionate share of the low-wage workforce — 40% of women versus 25% of men. Half of all women of color earn under $15 per hour versus a quarter of all men. And while 26% of White workers earn less than $15 an hour, 46% of Hispanic/Latinx workers and 47% of Black workers earn less than $15 per hour. These are the people suffering the worst sticker shock at the grocery store and the gas pump, choosing between rent and utilities.
What’s more, federal law still allows US employers to pay subminimum wages to nearly a million workers. The Raise the Wage Act would fix that, prohibiting anyone from being paid less than the federal minimum wage.
This is a solution that is long overdue, as it has been almost 13 years since the wage was increased. It’s also common sense: The pandemic filled the coffers of corporations, which made record profits, and created many more millionaires and billionaires. Why are we refusing to mandate that the people who do the work, who are responsible for productivity and profitability, get a slightly fairer share of the rewards?
People are hurting not because prices are rising, but because we have built a system that enables employers to exploit workers so a few can cash in. We should be focusing more on threadbare incomes than on prices. We can fix it, and we must.
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