To those who labeled the Fight for $15 fruitless, look at the effort now.
Far too many people viewed the sustained protests for a higher minimum wage as wasted energy.
Maybe this is God working in mysterious ways. Or just the truth that economic issues worthy of widespread public attention cannot be easily brushed aside.
A Missouri Supreme Court ruling Tuesday threw the long-running press for a higher minimum wage back into play. The court found that a state law forbidding a local government from contradicting the state minimum wage doesn’t negate voters’ rights to weigh the local measure. Kansas City now faces a deadline to decide if the question of raising the local minimum wage to $15 by 2020 will go on the April 4 ballot or at a later date. Either way, even if successful, it will surely face legal challenges.
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But the question is coming. The measure was put forth by a petition, largely the doing of a group of ministers connected to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City.
For years, a commonly voiced argument has been that the local pressure around raising the wage was for naught. The Missouri legislature had the fix in. They’d shut the door to raising it locally by enacting a law that said city minimums can’t circumvent the legislatively imposed state minimum of $7.70. Former Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it. And then his veto was overridden.
Interestingly enough, new Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens tossed a few ideas into the ring on the same day that the court’s decision hit the news. In his state of state address, Greitens outlined the dilemma of a single mother offered higher pay that she couldn’t afford to accept. The catch was that the wage increase would come at a loss because she’d lose an array of benefits — the earned income tax credit, child care, food and housing subsidies. Greitens’ intention seemed to be a message about work ethic, pressing the idea that the state shouldn’t make it more profitable for people to work less, or at lower wages.
But his scenario also followed many of the dynamics deserving consideration in minimum wage discussions. It’s the domino theory: Adjust the wage and there will be impacts elsewhere. For those opposed, like the Missouri Restaurant Association, the focus is on cuts into already tight profit margins.
Economists do not agree on how employers will react to a higher minimum wage. The threat is that prices will increase and workers will be laid off to make up the lost profits, or that businesses will turn to more automation. What’s even more difficult to predict is whether those negative outcomes are offset by the benefits of workers having higher incomes.
In other words, it’s complicated. And city leadership deserves praise for their efforts so far. In 2015, the City Council agreed to raising the local minimum gradually to $13 by 2020, a move that the state law negated until this week’s ruling.
The biggest underlying factor that people need to understand is this: The minimum wage has not kept up with productivity growth. By one estimate from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, it would’ve been at $16.54 — in 2012.
Workers at the lower end of the economic scale have not received their share of prosperity. This is also true of many middle-class workers. We’re all connected in this.
When the local conversations began about possibly raising the minimum wage, it was far too common to hear people guff at the notion. Some saw people working at this level as societal peons. You know the screed. Putdowns painting low-wage earners as stupid, lazy freeloaders who wouldn’t be in such a bind had they made better choices in life.
That’s the crass, easy answer. And it’s often not based in fact, but rather the musings of a person disconnected from such workers.
Today, there is greater awareness that two-thirds of low-wage workers are women. Single mothers are especially impacted, as they struggle with the unstable work hours and the related problems with transportation, child care and school schedules. If you never know how many hours you will get, it’s harder to be consistently present for a child. That’s not good for anyone.
An increasingly sophisticated view is emerging. More people grasp that these workers deserve avenues to gain more marketable skills, learn a trade and fit into the growing need for more technology-based labor.
Whatever the outcome of this round, the insights that have been gained on all fronts are irreversible. Kansas City is more knowledgeable because protesters pushed the issue.
And that’s a solid win for everyone.