Let’s stop debating minimum wage

Republican U.S. Sen. John Thune created a bit of a stir when he framed his position on the minimum wage by recalling how much he made in his first job as a kid growing up in South Dakota.

“I started working by bussing tables at the Star Family Restaurant for $1/hour & slowly moved up to cook — the big leagues for a kid like me — to earn $6/hour,” he tweeted. “Businesses in small towns survive on narrow margins. Mandating a $15 minimum wage would put many of them out of business.”

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders is on the other side of the debate.

“A $15 minimum wage is not a radical idea,” he tweeted. “What’s radical is the fact that millions of Americans are forced to work for starvation wages, while 650 billionaires became over $1 trillion richer during a global pandemic. Yes. We must raise the minimum wage to a living wage.”

Congress first established the federal minimum wage in 1938, and it seems like politicians have been fighting over it ever since.

That first minimum wage was 25 cents an hour. Today, it’s $7.25.

The wage has been at its current level for 12 years, the longest workers at the bottom of America’s wage scale have ever gone without a raise.

There is some disagreement even among Democrats about just how high the minimum wage should be. Just to be clear, though, no one is talking about an immediate doubling of the minimum wage.

Sanders and the progressives are pushing for smaller annual increases until the amount reaches $15 an hour by 2025. Moderates like Joe Manchin say the target should be lower.

As a matter of reference, the federal minimum wage when Thune was 17 was $2.30 an hour. If that number had been set to adjust for inflation, the minimum wage today would be $10.28.

Living on the minimum wage has never been easy, but the buying power for those at the bottom of the pay scale peaked in 1968 when the minimum wage was $1.60. In today’s dollars, that would translate to more than $12.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, 29 states already have a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum. A large portion of those states raise the amount automatically with inflation.

Who are these minimum-wage workers? The Bureau of Labor Statistics says they’re mostly young, and they are less likely to have more than a high school education. They are more likely to be working part-time than full-time. They are mostly female and mostly unmarried.

It’s really not all that surprising, I guess, that a U.S. senator like Thune might have trouble identifying with hundreds of thousands of workers earning minimum wage.

A person working 40 hours a week at $7.25 an hour would take home a little over $15,000 a year. A U.S. senator makes more than 11 times that, $174,000 a year.

To be fair, though, U.S. senators also haven’t had a raise in 12 years. Of course, they have no one to blame but themselves.

Congress passed a law in 1989 granting members a cost-of-living adjustment every year. All our senators and representatives had to do to get that raise was nothing. As long as they took no action, the raise would be automatic.

The idea was simple: Take politics out of the discussion and keep congressional salaries at a level Congress deems appropriate.

As we all know, though, nothing is simple when it comes to Congress. Every year since 2010, federal lawmakers have voted not to accept that annual raise.

Here’s a suggestion: Let’s tie both congressional salaries and the minimum wage to the cost of inflation.

Then maybe, just maybe, we can stop having this endless debate.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to [email protected].