Ten years ago San Francisco voters faced the opportunity to vote to raise the city's minimum wage (to $8.50) and index it so that it would rise annually with inflation. The previous summer a leader of one of the community groups who had pushed to have the measure on the ballot asked for a consultation with me about how to campaign for the new law. This was their chief campaign goal for the year; what should they do?
I've seldom had such a happy consultation: I could assure them that, having got the measure on the ballot, they were going to win. Winning higher minimums through legislative bodies is hard (employers are hard to brush off), but winning among the voters is pretty easy.
This is not because very low wage workers turn out to vote themselves a raise. Very low wage workers tend to be young, of color, and not people who can imagine voting. Even the chance to increase their own pay is not likely to turn them out. But fortunately, people who do vote -- more affluent, more established in society -- will usually vote to raise the minimum wage. This sum is not something they are aware of day to day. But when an election measure pushes the current amount into their consciousness (it was $6.85 or $13,200 for a full time worker that year), they recoil: NOBODY can live on that! Very few of these regular voters are restaurant owners or hotel operators, so they pass the increase (by 60 percent on that occasion.)
By proposing a higher, inflation-indexed, minimum wage in the State of the Union address, the President is putting the Republicans in just this bind. The issue is a political winner for Democrats. Even in our polarized context, about three quarters of us support giving low wage workers a raise. NOBODY can live on that! Most of us don't believe Republicans when they say increasing the minimum will keep employers from hiring. We doubt that argument instinctively -- it sounds like special pleading -- and besides, we know NOBODY can live on that!
Republicans seem to have a hard time taking this in, but the Great Recession certainly has reminded a majority of us that what a job should mean is enough money. Paul Krugman sums it up:
That's hard to oppose. Raising the minimum wage puts Republicans in the position of having to denigrate the values they claim to stand for: diligence, effort, responsibility.
Most people want to work. When they work, they should get paid. Good going, Mr. President. NOBODY can live on that!