The question over whether to raise the minimum wage has been brought back to national attention as California prepares to pass a measure setting the highest minimum wage rate in the country. By 2016, the state’s price floor will be $10 per hour. By comparison, the national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and Washington, the state that currently has the highest rate, is at $9.19 per hour. In a press release, California Governor Jerry Brown said that “this legislation is overdue and will help families that are struggling in this harsh economy.”
The actions of California have sparked a debate that has been happening on and off for quite a while. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour. “This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families,” Obama said. “It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank, rent or eviction, scraping by or finally getting ahead.” But with Republicans controlling the House of Representatives, such legislation is unlikely to come to fruition at the federal level.
However, several states like California have raised their minimum wages since Congress last approved an increase in the federal rate. Nineteen states plus the District of Columbia have wage rates higher than the federal minimum. Included in those states is Illinois, where the minimum wage is $8.25. The state is exploring another increase in the rate, with Governor Pat Quinn advocating for the same $10 an hour that Californians will see in a few years.
“Nobody in Illinois should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty. That’s a principle as old as the Bible,” Quinn said in his State of the State address earlier this year. “That’s why, over the next four years, we must raise the minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.” However, opponents of raising the minimum wage contend that such legislation kills jobs, with students being hit especially hard.
According to a report released in July by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds was 16.3 percent, more than double the national rate. Republicans and businesspeople alike believe that a raise in the minimum wage will hurt those numbers, and also raise unemployment for low-skilled workers. On the other hand, Democrats and other supporters of raising the minimum wage have argued that the current rate is not enough to survive on and that businesses can afford the hike.
The partisan divide is seen as several Democratic-leaning states such as New York and Rhode Island are pushing for higher rates while those that are Republican-leaning have been more wary to take up the issue. But with momentum from California, the number of states increasing the minimum wage appears ready to grow, especially in those Democratic-leaning states.