When I was growing up, my dad worked with his hands to make ends meet, first as a millwright at a timber mill in Southern Oregon and then as a mechanic in Portland.
Although we were never rich, his hard work was enough to provide for our family. On the wages he earned, my parents bought a three-bedroom ranch house, kept food on the table, and even put aside some money to help me become the first in our family to go to college.
In the decades since, it’s become increasingly hard for working parents to provide for their families’ basic necessities. There are many factors that have contributed to tougher times and shrinking paychecks for working Americans, but the declining federal minimum wage is a significant one.
In 1968, when I was 12, the federal minimum wage was equivalent to more than $10.50 in today’s dollars. That put more money in the pockets of minimum wage workers, but also helped lift up millions of working families whose employers raised pay to stay above the minimum wage.
Today, a worker who works 40 hours per week at the federal minimum wage barely makes $15,000 per year. That’s below the poverty line for a family of two, such as a single mother and her child.
In fact, a recent study estimated that a worker paid the federal minimum wage in states like Minnesota, Texas and Pennsylvania would have to work more than 90 hours per week to afford rent on a two-bedroom apartment. Without a minimum wage that comes closer to families’ real costs of living, our economy will continue to leave too many hardworking Americans behind.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. Senate will take up the Fair Minimum Wage Act, legislation I’m leading to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and index it to inflation. This change would give a raise to nearly 30 million Americans, the vast majority of whom are adults, more than half of whom are women, and whose earnings help support nearly one in four children.
Raising the wage would lift 4.6 million Americans out of poverty, and would help ensure that America’s low-wage workers receive paychecks that are more in line with the work they contribute to our economy.
Moreover, in Oregon we know that indexing a minimum wage works because Oregon has already road-tested the model. Indexing enables businesses to plan for small and steady increases rather than speculate about potential dramatic leaps.
Finally, a higher minimum wage may create jobs. The reason is simple: When workers have more wages in their pockets they spend more in our retail stores, which hire more workers to meet the demand. A recent study found that a higher federal minimum wage would create 85,000 jobs. Another study found that Oregon’s restaurant industry — one of the largest employers of workers at Oregon’s higher minimum wage — is projected to grow faster than the national average.
My dad believed that with hard work and sacrifice, anyone can make it in America. Congress should act to move that vision closer to reality, and ensure that America’s minimum wage rewards the millions of families that depend on it.