Like millions of people in this country, we know what it is like to make the minimum wage and struggle every day to cover the basics: putting a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food in our stomachs. We know the value of a college degree and how hard it is to put ourselves through school on $3.25 an hour, plus tips. And we know that in the United States, it should not be this way.
Danny goes to school full-time and puts in almost the same amount of time at work. Ali is struggling to pay off her student loans and find a job to make the most of her public health graduate degree. Even the slightest increase in earnings makes a huge difference when we are going to school and figuring out a career while holding jobs just to try to get by. But for years, deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists, determined to keep wages as low as possible, stymied state and federal efforts to raise wages. The tide finally turned this past election year when voters found a way around the special interests and used ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage in six states.
Led by local volunteers in our home states of Maine and Arizona, along with thousands of others in California, Colorado, Washington, and the District of Columbia, the successful minimum wage campaigns will gradually raise hourly wages to between $12 and $15 an hour over the next few years, depending on the region, affecting more than 8 million workers.
Higher minimum wage jobs have the potential to become a gateway to careers and upward mobility.
Four months in (for most places the first raise kicked in January 1), the minimum wage increases have put an extra $1 billion into workers’ pockets, according to The Fairness Project, a non-profit organization that helped lead the ballot proposals last year. By the end of the year, that figure will rise to $3 billion.
Higher minimum wage jobs have the potential to become a gateway to careers and upward mobility. Ultimately, workers will have more spending power to pump back into local economies.
We speak from experience. Danny is a college student paying his way through college by bussing tables at a local restaurant. The extra $1.95 an hour he now receives thanks to Arizona’s ballot measure has allowed him to take fewer shifts, freeing up time to study. And it has allowed him to eat more nutritious food, because now he doesn’t have to decide between buying a textbook or buying enough food for a decent dinner all week. He’s even been able to start paying off his student loans.
And for Ali, who graduated college with significant student loan debt and no full-time job, the extra dollars earned waiting tables are opening up new opportunities. She is now able to interview for positions in her chosen field without the stress of missing a shift and thus possibly a loan payment.
What’s more, the increase has come with all of the reward and none of the doom and gloom the business lobbyists predicted.
The increased minimum wage has come at little price to local business, but is having a significant, positive impact on the quality of life of low-wage workers. A number of studies have proven this, including a January 2017 report by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment that looked at the impact of a $15 minimum wage increase in California.
Even so, having witnessed the potential for ballot initiatives to shift power from corporate interests to voters, business groups have gone to war over the wage increases, and ballot proposals generally. They see direct democracy as a threat to their way of doing things. Special interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Federation of Independent Businesses have teamed up to try and overturn the overwhelming will of the people. They brought lawsuits against the wage hikes in Arizona and Washington, and politicians have introduced bills on behalf of these groups to limit the ability of citizens to mount ballot initiatives in the future.
Fortunately, last month the Arizona Supreme Court threw out one lawsuit. Recently, a district court in Washington reached the same conclusion. Still, we cannot sit on our hands and hope for the best. The same grassroots effort that powered these ballot initiatives in our states must continue to defend our democratic processes and the right to a decent standard of living.
This election taught us that America’s workers are determined to change a system that is almost always stacked against us. We made it clear in 2016 that voters still have the power to change their own lives and are not afraid to take matters into their own hands when politicians fail to live up to their promises.
Ali Monceaux lives in Portland, Maine, and Daniel Najarian lives in Tucson, Arizona, and both volunteered for minimum wage ballot campaigns supported by The Fairness Project.