by Erin Riordan
National dialogue has recently turned to a discussion around raising the minimum wage for the first time in over 20 years, with both President Obama and Senator Harkin submitting plans for an increase in the minimum wage. But what would it mean if we instead talked about encouraging businesses to pay all workers a living wage?
While minimum wage is only the lowest hourly, daily, or monthly wage employers are legally mandated to pay workers, living wage encompasses what it actually takes to live. A living wage is the minimum income necessary to cover a person’s basic needs- food, housing, healthcare, and childcare. Living wage is based around a 40-hour workweek, and a person earning a living wage should be able to make just that- a living.
Yet living wage is not legally mandated in the U.S., and 3.8 million hourly-paid workers are paid at or below the minimum wage. And according to the Economic Policy Institute roughly 28% of workers were paid poverty wages in 2010, a number that is expected to hold steady without improvement through 2020. Another study indicates that 1 in 4 private sector workers earns less than $10 an hour, well below the wage needed to stay out of poverty. Shamus Khan writes, “A minimum wage earner working 40 hours a week without ever taking a vacation will earn $15, 080 a year…Most minimum wage workers are adults, not teens, and most work for large corporations, not mom-and-pop stores,” indicating that for many people minimum wage is the standard of their adult life, and thus a life in poverty is experienced and expected both in the present and in the future.
The number of Americans living in poverty is not only unconscionable; it is also bad for the economy. Workers making a living wage will not only be less reliant on government programs they will also be spending more as consumers. Various studies have found that increasing minimum wage had no effect on employment, and in fact increased consumer spending as workers had more disposable income to pour back into the economy. Higher wages also reduce worker turnover, thus reducing costs to the employer. Raising the minimum wage makes jobs sustainable, and begins to chip away at poverty experienced by the working poor.
Living wage is a feminist issue. Feminists from the second wave on through present day have strived for the independence of women, and our right to choose our own lifestyles and careers, and to do so without being dependent on men. If we truly believe each woman should be able to live her life freely and as she chooses we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage. When someone is not paid a living wage they cannot afford to pay for housing and food and childcare and healthcare. Instead they must make choices between all of these, prioritizing some over others. For a woman paid less than a living wage birth control is not a basic medical expense, it is a luxury. And without birth control it is harder to control the size and future of one’s family, something that dramatically impacts one’s economic reality. Healthcare decisions are harder, and for many people healthcare isn’t a reality at all. Childcare decisions are complicated, and women making minimum wage are more likely to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. Women work 2/3 of minimum wage jobs. If we want women to have the freedom to live their lives as they choose and to do so independently, we need to pay women a living wage.