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Activists: Higher US Minimum Wage Still Not High Enough

Activists: Higher US Minimum Wage Still Not High Enough
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This July marks one year since Washington, DC raised its minimum wage from $8.25 an hour to $9.50. But Renee Patterson, who has worked as a teacher’s aide for minimum wage for 10 years, says it hasn'y made much of a difference for her.

“I didn’t even really know they had an increase,” she admitted. “Staying on a certain budget, you just do everything according to that budget, even if you get a nickle or a dime more.”

Patterson said her budget didn’t allow for whole a lot. She lives in public housing and doesn’t have a credit card. She does most of her shopping at the dollar store. That includes the $10 a month she budgets to decorate her door for upcoming holidays.

“You know, some of the things you enjoy in life, you need to just cut it out and ... be happy with what you have," she said. "Don’t go beyond your means if you don’t have to, don’t put yourself into a bind or depend on other people to help you. That’s how I’ve been survivin’.”

The fight for $15

For two years, all across the country, hundreds of thousands of mainly fast food workers have taken to the streets. They’re demanding a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and union rights. Washington DC’s "Fight for 15" campaign is part of that movement.

Activist Jeremiah Lowery said, “To actually afford to live in this city, to actually have a decent standard of living, decent housing, you need at least $15 an hour in DC.”

He canvassed outside busy metro stations every Wednesday to recruit advocates for what he called a living wage.

“We’re really trying to build up worker power. And that’s why we’re out here. We’re trying to get workers involved in our campaign. We’re trying to invite them out to meetings, we’re trying to invite them out to barbeques, so that they have a say in the process of this campaign so it can be worker-led,” said Lowery.

Effect of a higher minimum wage

Economists are still torn on the effect raising the minimum wage has on the local and national economy.

Conservative policy analyst Brian Williams argued raising the wage caused much more harm than good. He pointed to the self-check out stations that have become increasingly popular at grocery stores and other businesses.

“If you’re paying somebody more than they’re worth, and an entrepreneur comes around and sells you some sort of a robot or some sort of an app that can do it for you, then businesses will make that economic decision and they’ll just eliminate that position all together,” said Williams.

But, David Cooper of the Economic Policy Institute said that wasn’t the case for DC.

“DC raised its minimum wage to $9.50 in July of last year. Now, if you look at what has happened to employment in the District of Columbia since that time, from July of last year to April of this year, employment growth was about 1.5%. That’s relatively strong.”

He admitted that while some local businesses had higher labor costs, there were also benefits for the bottom line. "When you raise the minimum wage, it tends to lead to lower turnover. Workers stick around longer. That actually means lower costs for businesses recruiting, training and hiring the workers. It also tends to lead to higher productivity,” said Cooper.

The federal government requires employers to pay at least $7.25 an hour. Some cities mandate more. Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have passed legislation pledging to gradually raise the minimum hourly wage to $15. Washington, DC will host a ballot referendum on a $15 minimum wage next year.