The federal minimum wage would rise to $15 an hour under historic legislation passed Thursday by the House of Representatives.
Three Republicans jumped the aisle to support the Democratic-led measure. Six Democrats defected to vote no. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Donald Trump can now give tens of millions of working people a raise any time they want.
The bill would double the national pay floor in a plan that would roll out gradually, ticking up from the current $7.25 over a six-year period. The measure also permanently pegs the minimum wage to inflation, automating future increases to break a vicious political and economic cycle that’s become the norm over the past half-century.
Congress has not raised the wage floor in a decade. That hike, too, followed a decade of stagnation. So did its predecessor legislation in the 1990s. The government has slipped into a pattern of ignoring wage policy for long stretches as costs of living rise and erode the earning power of the lowest-paid workers in the country.
That cycle has helped fuel the massive economic inequality that’s ravaged the country for decades, through recessions and economic expansions alike. Today’s $7.25 is worth less than the minimum wage of the 1970s in inflation-adjusted terms.
The $15 wage floor wouldn’t just catch workers up for all that lost time and buying power the way past wage hikes have, though: It seeks to establish a higher standard of living for low-wage workers than the previous record high, set in the 1960s. Nearly 20 million workers would see their pay increased by the measure, and an estimated 1.3 million people would be lifted out of poverty.
The sheer magnitude of the hike — more than doubling the pay floor nationwide — has dismayed even some economists who are typically supportive of minimum wage raises in general. Supporters shrug off those worries, noting that the current wage system is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, who are left to make up the difference between corporate poverty wages and what it costs to keep a family alive in the 21st century.
“There’s always been this attempt for some to hold onto this gross inequality and these scare tactics,” Rev. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign told reporters on a call before the vote. “We have had an economy that goes up on Wall Street but it’s fueled by low-wage jobs on back streets and back roads and city streets. That is what we have to end. We cannot really be a full-fledged democracy when you have 140 million people poor and low-wealth, and 62 million people working… for less than a minimum wage.”
If conservatives are distressed here, they have only themselves to blame: Republicans had a chance to cut a reasonable deal almost a decade ago, years before the fast-food walkouts were even underway. Progressives had only wanted a $10.10 federal floor as recently as 2012, arguing that would bring minimum-wage buying power back to its 1970s levels.
The Fight for $15 movement is also an indirect byproduct of longer-running policy failures. After Wall Street wrecked the real economy at the close of the Bush presidency, the wealthy bounced back almost immediately. Taxpayers bailed out bankers first, the government declined to extract ownership stakes in their firms, and the modern American economy returned relatively quickly to business as usual: Income inequality grew steadily.
The anger that set of policy choices instilled in the U.S. electorate and working class has helped foster the political conditions that followed. If the idea of a $15 minimum wage scares anyone who watched the House’s vote Thursday, odds are they should direct their anger towards the people who opted to hang working-class people out to dry for the past decade.