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Want a Better America? Raise the U.S. Minimum Wage

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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My cousins, who are in their mid-40s, told my great-aunt and great-uncle that it would be only for a “few weeks.” They had hit a hard time financially, and working as cashiers at a grocery store in Arizona made it difficult for them to save money. The weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years. It became clear to everyone that on their salaries, there was no way my cousins could afford to live on their own.

The folks in my family are not unlike many other families across the country. CNN recently came out with a glaring article that reported that minimum wage workers cannot afford to rent anywhere in America. Anywhere.

This is utterly and completely cruel. In a country that promises so much, we have failed to provide a living wage to workers and thus a stable place to live. If things are to change, and the U.S. truly hopes to fulfill the promise of opportunity to its people, the federal minimum wage must be raised.

A new report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition showed that no single city, county or state is affordable for folks who work 40-hour weeks in minimum wage jobs. The average national market rent is $1,061 a month for a one-bedroom home and $1,300 for a two-bedroom. So, instead of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, a worker would have to earn at least $20.40 per hour to rent a one-bedroom home, or $25 per hour for a modest two-bedroom home.

Things are even worse if you look at different areas across the country. The average rent is upward of $3,000 in San Jose, California, $2,000 in Philadelphia and $1,500 in Dallas.

Some states and counties have minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, you say? Well, that doesn’t seem to be enough either. Although 30 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages higher than $7.25 (some only slightly, like $8.75 in West Virginia), a minimum wage worker would have to work about 100 hours to afford a two-bedroom rental house. That’s two full-time jobs. Literally two jobs.

That is not OK. It is time that the federal minimum wage is increased to $15, as many scholars and elected officials have called for, and people’s livelihoods are no longer on the line. Most of the American people, in fact, would like to see the minimum wage increased to that number. They understand, and live through, the pain of the current situation.

We know that the federal minimum wage has not risen with inflation, so it is worth far less today than before. If the minimum wage had risen with productivity, it would be over $21 per hour. This would mean a person could make about $41,000 a year — a number that might facilitate better opportunities for them to find housing. Depending on the area of the country they live in, that’s still really low. But it is better.

And better looks like this: If the minimum wage is raised to $15, almost 40 million workers benefit. This includes 38 million people ages 18 and older, 23 million women, 11 million parents, 5 million single parents, and the parents of nearly 15 million children.

Better also includes the fact that increasing the minimum wage does not have adverse effects on employment, as GOP lawmakers would lead you to believe. People want to work. This helps them work, and, it helps them live. People also needn’t worry about this increasing the prices of goods and services. Since any increase is spread out over many consumers, no one really feels the hit to their wallet.

It’s not rocket science. We can change the lives of 40 million people by doing something seemingly simple — increasing the federal minimum wage.

I hope that one day my cousins, who work hard at their job every day, will be able to afford a place of their own. The U.S. has promised to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare, and it is time this promise is fulfilled.

Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research in the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, Abilene Reporter News, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, Austin American-Statesman, and MSN.

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