Political candidates generally talk more about how they would get government off the backs of citizens than about the positive things government can and should do to help ordinary working Americans. Dr. Mary Headrick, a primary care physician and a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 3rd congressional district, does not fit that mode. Her willingness to advocate for a higher minimum wage is a good example.
She rightly notes, as do many economists, that the nation's low minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, has failed miserably over decades to keep pace with inflation and the rising cost of living. At the federal minimum wage, a full-time job would pay just $15,080 a year. That's not enough to get any adult worker out of poverty. Yet contrary to what many believe, that's all many bread-winners with children earn, especially in the South, where most states refuse to set a minimum wage higher than the federal level.
The obvious result, Headrick points out, is that exceedingly low wages keep an unreasonably high number of workers below the poverty level and push them to rely on safety net programs, such as Medicaid/TennCare and food stamps.
A number of figures confirm that: 17 percent of young families were below poverty levels in the 3rd congressional district in 2010, and 27 percent of children were in poverty level families. In Hamilton County in 2008-09, a shocking 85.4 percent of students in our county school system qualified for free or reduced-price meals -- the highest percentage of any of the counties in the 3rd District -- according to data compiled by TACIR, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.
Raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, Headrick argues, would serve as an incentive to work and boost state and federal income tax revenues and family income, while decreasing the burden on safety net programs.
Headrick is hardly alone in advocating a higher minimum wage. Congress last passed a bill to increase the minimum wage in 2006 -- phasing in a multistep increase -- but it remains unreasonably low, and there's still no cost-of-living index for inflation in the minimum wage. Lawmakers in at least five states have strongly advocated an increase in the minimum wage this year, and economic studies support their contention that boosting the minimum wage would help drive both consumer spending levels and tax revenue. It also would decrease reliance on public safety net programs, and boost family values and the creation of more cohesive and marriage-based families.
With the economy recovering, political candidates ought to be making the point that boosting wages at the bottom rung is not only a fine way to strengthen working families and help them rise above poverty; it's a way of boosting the economy. Businesses wary of having to pay higher minimum wages miss the point that the higher wage would boost economic activity and fuel more demand for their goods and services.
Headrick's proposal is practical. She would seek a minimum wage of $10.16 an hour over two to three years, with exceptions for new, part-time young workers under the age of 18, or for special-needs workers in a "sheltered workshop" environment. That's entirely feasible, and well in line with what many economists advocate. But for Headrick to get to Congress and work on that idea, 3rd District voters will have to realize that the Republicans they generally favor rarely support ways to help people stuck at the bottom work their way up.