If the minimum wage had grown at the same rate as the earnings of the top one percent of Americans the federal wage floor would be more than triple the current hourly minimum of $7.25. Instead, the minimum wage has been lower than a poverty wage ever since 1982.
The New York Times compiled those and other basic facts about the minimum wage into an infographic. Together with demographic data about who actually holds minimum-wage jobs — less than a quarter of the minimum-wage workforce are teenagers, and nearly four in ten are over the age of 30 — the graphic makes the fundamental case for fighting inequality and economic hardship by raising the minimum wage. The horizontal red line in the Times graphic indicates the hourly wage necessary for a single parent working full-time with one child to avoid poverty:
One puzzle piece missing in the graphic is race. Since racial minorities are over-represented among the minimum wage workforce, raising the minimum wage to just $10.10 would lift 3.5 million people of color out of poverty.
The stagnation and collapse of minimum wage purchasing power has helped drive the divergence between the wealthiest and poorest segments of the U.S. workforce. As minimum-wage jobs have provided less and less stable economic footing for working people, the wealthiest sliver of the country has seen astronomical gains in their compensation. If instead the federal minimum wage had grown at the same rate as one-percenter earnings, it would sit at $22.62 per hour today — 212 percent higher than the current wage floor.
A 212 percent raise may seem outlandish, but previous research indicates American workers have just about earned it. Worker productivity has more than doubled since 1968, and if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity gains it would have been $21.72 last year. From 2000 to 2012 alone workers boosted their productivity by 25 percent yet saw their earnings fall rather than rise, leading some economists to label the early 21st century a lost decade for American workers.
It’s no wonder, then, that low-wage workers have been agitating for pay increases this year. Strikes and protests at fast food and retail chains spread from New York City to another 60 cities all across this country this summer. Walmart workers have gone on strike in at least nine cities in the past several weeks. Service employees at federally-owned buildings in Washington, D.C., have walked off the job multiple times to call attention to the role of government contracts in subsidizing poverty wages for millions of working people.
While some federal policy figures have tried to introduce a minimum wage hike — progressive Democrats have introduced bills to bring the wage floor in line with inflation, and President Obama recently came out in favor of a $10 minimum wage after calling for a less ambitious hike earlier this year — the action seems to have shifted to the local level. Voters have approved wage hikes in New Jersey and in the town that hosts the Seattle-Tacoma international airport. Lawmakers are pushing for higher wages in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.. Activists are campaigning for hikes in states like Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, and South Dakota.