Commentary

It is long past time to answer the call for a $15 minimum wage  | Opinion

A $15 minimum wage is still below the living wage for the average Pa. worker. Efforts to dial it back are misguided

A coalition of progressive advocacy groups rallies on the Pa. Capitol steps to call for better funding for public schools, a higher minimum wage, and other items in the 2019 state budget (Capital-Star photo).

By Claire Kovach

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first cell phone call.  

On April 3, 1973, co-inventor Martin Cooper stood in midtown Manhattan and used the first cell phone to call his competitor-counterpart at Bell Labs/AT&T to brag. The pioneering, two-pound block of a cell phone would be unrecognizable next to today’s sleek, lightweight models, the latter with capabilities no one could have imagined 50 years ago.  

Cell phone prices have dropped significantly since their public release.

The first cell phone—the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X—retailed for 12,000 of today’s dollars at the time of its release, costing 1,193 minimum wage hours at the time. Today, you can buy an unused older model iPhone for less than $100 or 14 of today’s minimum wage hours.  

The world has rapidly changed in the half-century since that call. While the cost of producing electronics like TVs, computers, and cellphones has dropped significantly in recent decades, the cost of many basics has climbed sharply.

Housing and child care prices have jumped, grabbing a larger share of a family’s budget. Medical care and college tuition prices have skyrocketed, leading to debt crises all but unheard of in other industrialized nations.

And more recent upticks in the price of food, new cars, gasoline, and utilities have caused these basics to consume increasingly more of a household’s income, leaving many struggling to make ends meet. Wage increases for most workers haven’t kept pace with the cost of necessities, and for many, they haven’t kept pace with inflation. The minimum wage has become disconnected from its original goal—to offer a decent living. 

In 1968, five years before that historic phone call in New York City, one person working full time at the federal minimum wage was enough to keep a family of three above the poverty line.

This was the peak value of the US minimum wage. At today’s Pennsylvania/federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, that same full-time, year-round worker earns only $500 over the amount needed pull one person above the poverty line.

And that worker would need to work 10-hour days every single day of the year to lift that same family of three’s income just above the poverty line. This isn’t because our poverty lines have greatly changed. There is less than a $900 difference between the 1968 and 2023 poverty threshold for a family of three once you adjust for inflation.

The difference between what the 1968 minimum wage could do and what the current minimum wage can do is representative of a failure to answer repeated calls to raise it. Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost sight of what the minimum wage must do 

Although arguably not considered a “decent living” to many, researchers at MIT have marked $16.41 as Pennsylvania’s average living hourly wage, a wage high enough to keep a single worker afloat without anti-poverty program support, but not high enough to allow that worker to purchase any prepared foods, eat outside the home, or have a single dollar for entertainment or savings.

A $15 minimum wage is still below the living wage for the average Pennsylvania worker, and efforts to dial it back are misguided. 

The Pennsylvania minimum wage has been on hold at $7.25 since 2009, with repeated calls to raise it going unanswered. A $15 minimum wage is not excessive or intolerable.

What has been intolerable is the inaction on this policy issue. Our regional neighbors have been among those leading the way on minimum wage increases, with several already at, or scheduled to be at, $15 per hour within a year.

Our years-long, low minimum wage floor has suppressed the wages of over a million hardworking Pennsylvanians who deserve and are calling for more from a commonwealth that touts “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence” as a motto.  

Will this be the year that the call is answered?  

Claire Kovach is the senior research analyst at the Keystone Research Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.  

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.

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