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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Increasing Minimum Wage Increases Democracy

February 28, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

On Tuesday, inside the State Capitol, Minnesotans rallied for a minimum wage hike. It was a rollicking good time with great speeches, music, call-and-response exhortation and lots and lots of signage. Participants made the case for a minimum wage increase’s positive economic impact on workers’, families’ and communities’ lives. Notably absent from the rally? A lot more minimum wage-earning workers. Why? Because they can’t afford to take the time off from work to advocate for democratic change.

This raises an interesting, troubling question. If low and modest wage workers are too financially stressed to cast a ballot, attend a community meeting or advocate for policy change, are the resulting elections, meeting outcomes and policy proposals truly representative?

Democracy requires citizen participation. We don’t enjoy pure democracy, where everyone gets together and decides everything. In a nation of 300-plus million and a state of 5.3 million, the pure Athenian democracy is functionally unworkable. Instead, we practice representative democracy. We hold regular elections, choosing leaders to create public policy and enact laws on our behalf.

Our nation’s founding fathers were not terrifically concerned with the political participation of anyone outside of their class. Democracy, to them, meant men of means creating public laws that treated men of means equally. Wealth and property were understood to be reasonable requirements of citizenship’s responsibilities and rights. The North American landed gentry weren’t completely oblivious to the rising mechanics’ and small farmers’ concerns. Suffrage, the right to vote gained through democratic process, accommodated voting rights expansion. Still, the right to vote and casting a vote, much less broadly participating in our democracy’s time consuming nuance, are two very different things.

Democracy theory is easy. Everyone has the right to vote, therefore everyone should vote. Electoral outcome legitimacy flows from this faith. That’s the theory. Practice, on the other hand, is not.

Voting participation positively correlates with wealth, home ownership, education and age. Young people don’t vote to the same degree that older people vote. If you’re over 30, own a home, hold a college degree and earn at least the median income, you vote. Begin eliminating those factors and voting participation drops. Low income, no post-secondary education and renting shelter reflect economic barriers to individual, family and community stability. Voting, for someone living on the margins, becomes a luxury rather than a civic responsibility.

Minnesota’s legislature is considering a bill that raises Minnesota’s minimum hourly wage from $6.15, past the federal $7.25 minimum to $9.50. It will affect almost 360,000 Minnesota workers. Better than half of those are women. $9.50 an hour increases family income but it won’t significantly reduce the draw on public social safety net programs for low income, working Minnesotans. That step requires an annual income north of $30,000, translating to $15/hour or more.

Last month, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry updated its minimum wage report, reflecting 2013 wage data. It reveals, in ways small and large, minimum wage work’s reality. The most significant, big-picture-economy finding observes that minimum wage’s inflation adjusted purchasing power has declined by over 30 percent since 1974. This means that for people performing minimum wage work, climbing out of poverty, based on full-time minimum wage work’s purchasing power is almost a third harder today than it was 40 years ago. Mountains are supposed to crumble over time, not grow taller.

The DLI report finds that an increasingly smaller number of Minnesota workers earn the $7.25/hour minimum wage. That’s good news but the problem is that a growing number of workers aren’t earning much beyond minimum. Minnesota’s food service industry employs 125,000 hourly workers. About one third of those were paid minimum wage or less. Almost half of Minnesota’s minimum wage-earning hourly work force work in eating and drinking establishments. Among all Minnesota hourly wage employees, 6.6 percent are women.

Roughly calculated, working 40 hours a week at $7.50 an hour results in $300 in gross earnings. That’s not take-home pay but money earned before taxes and withholding. And on top of this, low and minimum wage workers off-set reduced earnings purchasing power by working an additional part-time job or two. Consequently, asking a minimum wage worker to join a State Capitol advocacy rally means relinquishing income. Four hours away from work, at minimum wage, is $30. That might not seem like much to folks earning Minnesota’s $57,000 median family income but $30 is ten percent of $300 of weekly gross earnings.

Structurally, minimum and low wage hourly pay reduces the likelihood of participating in voting, advocacy, opposition and the exercise of democracy’s promise. It further concentrates the impact of higher income interests through disproportionately representative concentration. Our democracy becomes, as a result, less democratic.

I can’t promise that increasing Minnesota’s minimum wage to $9.50 an hour will immediately improve our democracy. But, examining the data, a raise will increase 357,000 Minnesotans consumer spending power, create more stable family lives, and reflect a majority of Minnesotans’ expectation that Minnesota’s minimum wage should be raised. That, more than one rally, is the best measure of positive change.

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