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Thursday, June 28, 2012 06:15 pm

Make the minimum wage a living wage

The passage of a bill to increase the minimum wage out of committee in the Illinois Senate at the end of May once again brings a multitude of issues to the forefront of public discussion. These issues range from the immediate effects of increased minimum wage rates on unemployment rates to the ability of small business owners to keep operating. They include larger social issues such as workers’ rights, poverty in America and social welfare policy.

Although Illinois does have the third highest minimum wage in the U.S., working full time for $8.25 an hour does not equate to a living wage for a single parent of one child. A living wage has been defined as the minimum amount of income required to allow a family to have its basic needs met without depending on government assistance for survival. The belief that one can improve one’s station in life by pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is firmly embedded in American culture. But how valid is such a belief in a world that allows those who are working hard and following all the rules to continue to live in poverty?

Opponents of raising the minimum wage assert that doing so would have devastating effects on small businesses and would cause the unemployment rate to skyrocket once again. However, research indicates that increasing the minimum wage has historically had little effect on unemployment rates. In some instances, raising the minimum wage was found to correlate with reductions in unemployment rates. Furthermore, restructuring the state minimum wage law to allow for an automatic annual adjustment to accommodate changes in the cost of living would eliminate the sticker shock that comes with the current practice of increasing the minimum wage by a relatively dramatic amount every five years or so.

 One of the major shortcomings of the current Illinois law is its failure to automatically adjust the minimum wage to accommodate the changing cost of living. Because of this, the purchasing power of a minimum wage income in today’s market is considerably less than what it was in 1968. Therefore it is proposed in the current legislation that the minimum wage be adjusted so that it once again has the same buying power as it did in 1968, and that it be annually adjusted to accommodate changes in the cost of living. These amendments may still fall short of making the minimum wage a living wage in all areas of the state, and the degree to which they may impact the poverty rate in Illinois is still unknown. It is certain that making these two changes to the minimum wage law would be an important step towards reducing the number of people living in poverty while maintaining full-time employment.

Making the minimum wage a living wage would also help ensure the rights of workers. It is not uncommon to hear reports of companies deciding to lay off workers and/or decrease benefits for workers although the company’s profit margins continue to rise. And while the unscrupulous actions of high-profile CEOs are not the norm for all employers, it has become clear that those employers who truly care about the well-being of their employees have unfortunately become more of an exception than the norm. All labor reforms come with a price tag, but as President Franklin Roosevelt stated in his second inaugural address, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Emily Richardson of Springfield is a single mother and a graduate of Eastern Illinois University. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Southern California.
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