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Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 02:54 am

Do more than the minimum on minimum wage

“In the wealthiest nation on earth,” President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech, “no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

Right! Way to go! Not only does his call to raise America’s minimum wage put some real pop in populism, but it could finally start putting some ethics back in our country’s much-celebrated (but rarely honored) “work ethic.” Kudos to Obama for putting good economics and good morals together – and for putting this long overdue increase on the front burner.

But then came the number: $9 an hour. Excuse me, Mr. President, but if you’re going to bother making the fight, why start out with a number so low that many minimum-wage employees would still “have to live in poverty”?

About 60 percent of America’s lowest-paid workers are women, including single moms struggling awfully hard to make ends meet. Yet, at your $9 an hour level, a single woman with two children, would, in fact, be paid a poverty wage. And, since you would slowly phase-in the increase, she wouldn’t even be paid that until nearly two years from now.

Yes, nine bucks is a buck-seventy-five better than the current low wage of high misery, but it doesn’t even elevate the buying power of our nation’s wage floor back to where it was in 1968. Nor, by the way, does it match the $9.50-level you pledged to push in 2008 when you were running for president.

This is not merely about extending a badly needed helping hand to people struggling to work their way out of poverty, but it’s also about enabling them to give a bottom-up jolt of new energy to our economy, which it desperately needs.

Ironically, while super-rich corporations are hoarding trillions of dollars in offshore accounts, refusing to invest in our nation, minimum-wage workers will invest every extra dollar they get in America – spending it right where they live on clothing, food, transportation, health care and other needs.

A 2011 Federal Reserve study found that a $1 hike in the minimum wage produces an additional $2,800 a year in spending by each of those households.

Yes, I know that congressional Republicans’ idea of governing is, first, to snap a sharp “No,” and only then ask what the proposal is. So, at the direction of corporate lobbyists, they were bleating a loud negative to any wage hike – and when Obama proposed $9, GOP House leader John Boehner jumped on it like a gator on a poodle.

Incredibly, he claimed that raising the wages of our country’s most poorly paid workers would hurt – guess who? – America’s most poorly paid workers! This disingenuous pitting of poor people against themselves is derived from a corporate manufactured political myth that hiking the minimum pay squeezes small-business owners to the breaking point, “forcing” them to fire employees or even go bankrupt. “When you raise the price of employment,” Boehner grumped, “guess what happens: You get less of it.”

Well, guess again, John. That “job killer” fable has been debunked again and again by real world experience. Over decades, the pay floor has constantly been elevated by Congress, states and cities, and the great preponderance of studies show that it causes little to zero negative impacts on job numbers, but very positive results for employee morale, productivity and turnover.

A poll last June found that seven out of 10 of us favor raising the minimum wage above $10 an hour. So, Mr. President, this is not a time for meek proposals. Think big, and take it to the people.  

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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