SANTA ROSA. Calif. — The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. For a full-time worker, that comes to a gross annual income of about $15,000. That's before payroll taxes or other deductions, and most often without health coverage or any other benefits.
No matter where in the country you live, even if you are single with no dependent children, there is no such thing as a comfortable existence on $15,000 a year. It probably means shopping at thrift stores, eating substandard meals, driving an unreliable car and living in cramped quarters — possibly in an unsafe neighborhood.
It also means accumulating debt and making saving nearly impossible. In my case, when I was a working single mother with three small children (ages one, three and five) and couldn't make ends meet even with a full-time job, it meant going on public assistance just to survive.
The minimum wage has remained frozen since July 2009, even as the cost of living has increased more than 7 percent. Anyone trying to maintain a household can tell you that the price of a gallon of milk or children's shoes — to say nothing of a semester of college — is higher than it was three years ago.
The very least we can do, at a time when so many Americans are struggling, is to give minimum wage earners a raise. I am a co-sponsor of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012, offered by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., which would increase the minimum wage in 85-cent increments until it reaches $9.80 an hour. Thereafter, the minimum wage would be indexed to inflation each year.
This legislation would give more than 28 million Americans a raise. But like so many bills designed to help the middle class and low-income families, it hasn't seen the light of day under Republican control of the House of Representatives.
Instead of helping the working poor earn a few more cents every hour, they're more interested in lavishing tax breaks on the very wealthiest Americans. They see nothing wrong with the average Fortune 500 CEO getting in one day more than double what a minimum wage worker takes home in an entire year.
In fact, they want to increase that disparity. They see widening income inequality not as a moral crisis but a sign of economic virtue.
Contrary to a conservative Republican myth, recent studies have concluded that increasing the minimum wage is part of a sound growth strategy and critical to our economic recovery.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the raise to $9.80 an hour would create roughly 100,000 new net jobs while increasing GDP by about $25 billion.
It just makes sense — when you put more money in the pockets of working people, they pump it right back into the economy by spending on basic goods and services. Higher wages means greater consumer demand, which helps businesses grow and hire more workers.
If you put in an honest day's work, you should not have to live in poverty. That is, or at least should be, a basic American value.
Mitt Romney would lump minimum wage earners in with the 47 percent of Americans he believes are "dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them ."
In truth, minimum wage workers are proud people who are not asking for handouts or a free ride of any kind. They work very hard, often at grueling, repetitive, unglamorous jobs that society needs done.
Those who serve food, clean hotel rooms, landscape gardens and empty bedpans — what they want is economic justice, a fair shake, a measure of respect and dignity. The very least we can do, the first step toward giving them economic security, is to raise the minimum wage.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., serves as national president of Americans for Democratic Action.