This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
With Democrats refashioning their legislative approach to their $15 an hour minimum wage commitment, working Americans are once again stuck in the paltry bottom line of $7.25 an hour that currently stands. The meager rate — unchanged since 2009 — ensures that the nation’s number of low income earners will continue to grow, particularly in communities of color.
Studies show that the actual value of the minimum wage has dropped 17 percent since 2009 and 31 percent since 1968. Its purchasing power is the lowest of G7 nations. Fast food workers in the United States can look abroad to see their counterparts earning much more than they do. Meanwhile, in the last forty years the cost of attending a four-year college or university has increased nearly 500 percent. And while many cities, states, and businesses like Costco and Amazon have raised (sometimes reluctantly) hourly wages, the federal government has yet to act.
More than half of Americans support the hike to $15 an hour, but lawmakers should go further. A living wage should be a constitutional right.
Some in the Founding Generation were familiar with one of the key texts of early capitalism, “Wealth of Nations,” written by eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith. Smith ruffled feathers in the power establishment by advocating “improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people,” believing that because “servants, laborers, and workmen” were in the majority of society and worked to “feed, clothe, and lodge the whole body of the people,” that they themselves should be well fed, clothed, and lodged. “No society,” he continued, could “be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members is poor and miserable.”
These ideas percolated across the Atlantic to Philadelphia. Though not expressly stipulated in the hallowed document, the spirit of decent income is enshrined in the Constitution. Affording day-to-day life helps promote “general welfare” and “domestic tranquility” outlined in the Preamble. The Ninth Amendment provides the people with liberties not enumerated in the Constitution, which can be financial, and the Fourteenth Amendment forbids depriving citizens from life, liberty and property without due process.
Yet substandard paychecks do just that.
Making wage direction under the purview of Congress has been an uphill battle, historically. President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins tried to pass a minimum wage with the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, but it was struck down two years later by the Supreme Court. FDR and his labor secretary saw success with the revised Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the first minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. But as it has inched upwards over time, the money has not gone far enough.
By not making living wages a Constitutional mandate, low-income people suffer disproportionately in the judicial process (like cash bail), housing, health care and other rights and privileges all working Americans should enjoy because their labors serve the nation.
While a small percentage of workers earn the minimum, making a higher base income a valued right would avoid future lags in getting people out of poverty. Too often workers are forced to wait for states, municipalities, or the beneficence of big businesses to raise their pay. Until such an increase happens, debt and homelessness rise. Turning a living wage into a national standard would amplify the legal infrastructure to prevent more people from suffering the financial effects of working while poor.
What would such a mandate look like in practice? Several countries are experimenting with a guaranteed basic income. In the United States, Alaska has a permanent fund that furnishes additional money for its residents. With more states passing higher minimum wages, securing the necessary three-fourths of their legislatures for an amendment is not as far-fetched as it once was. Other precedents like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the near-passed Equal Rights Amendment sought to redress, among other things, pay discrepancies between men and women. It is time to soften the egregious pay gaps that still exist between the top one percent and the bottom eleven percent that live below the poverty line. An amendment obliging states to pass minimum standards of pay is not unlike the federal government protection of a citizen’s right to vote. States enjoy a high degree of latitude in determining how the electoral process happens, but ultimately Washington is tasked with safeguarding the franchise.
For those who doubt the possibility of such a Constitutional code, the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was at one time unfathomable because slaves were considered property to which slaveholders had a legal right. The Civil War eliminated slave labor, but exploitative pay escalated in its place. Just as the country moved to embrace slaves as humans, so too can we envision workers as deserving a basic income rather than relegated to abject wages.
Critics say that raising the minimum wage will have negative effects such as business closures and a greater reliance on automated labor, both of which diminish job growth. But never in the choir of economic experts, politicians, and academics are the voices of people who actually make a substandard living. Rather, salaried elites lecture wage workers on the necessity of impoverishment for keeping small businesses afloat. They ensure that lower incomes spur people to “work hard to improve themselves.” Such is the American Way.
But what if working forty hours a week at a restaurant or dry cleaner ought to be enough? It is time we invert John F. Kennedy’s famous dictum (“Ask not what your country can do for you …”) and ask what can the country do for us? If you do not have the benefit of a college degree or are a single parent, yet you conduct your labor in an ethical and dutiful way, what does the nation owe you? If you serve hamburgers or pick fruit for a living, what guarantees should you enjoy?
People derive sustenance and satisfaction from the industry of others, and these workers should be adequately compensated. They too deserve less financial burden associated with health care, housing, and children’s education, as well as enough money to indulge in leisure.
To labor honestly for the nation is to enrich it, which should entitle one to a livability that enables better access to the general welfare and a pathway to the American dream. This should be achievable in one job. Dignity in work, it turns out, does have a number, and it is not $7.25 an hour.
John A. Gronbeck-Tedesco is an associate professor of American Studies at Ramapo College of New Jersey.