One of the most compelling proposals to come out of this year’s State of the Union Address was President Obama’s call to boost the federal minimum wage to $9 per hour—up from the current minimum of $7.25 per hour—and to tie future increases to the cost of living. To create public awareness about the need for the raise, officials from the U.S. Department of Labor have been touring the country to meet with working people who are trying to live on the current minimum.
Mary Beth Maxwell acting deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labors Wage and Hour Division. Photo by Jobs with Justice.
Prominent in this effort has been Mary Beth Maxwell, the acting deputy administrator of the department’s Wage and Hour Division. Having previously served as the founding director of American Rights at Work and as a top organizer for Jobs With Justice, Maxwell was one of the more well-known social movement leaders to join the administration. In recent years, her department has hired hundreds more investigators than were previously being deployed. As a result, Maxwell explains, “just this past year, we got $280 million in back wages for workers, the highest in the history of the Wage and Hour division.”
I recently spoke with Maxwell about the drive to raise the minimum wage, what she has learned from her tour among low-wage workers, and why the timing is right.
Amy Dean: As you’ve been criss-crossing the country and engaging in conversations with people working at the minimum wage, have you noticed trends among those facing wage stagnation?
Mary Beth Maxwell: It’s been an incredibly humbling and inspiring experience to be part of these roundtables. I’ve been to Pittsburgh and San Antonio and Houston and Minneapolis and Gary, Ind. In each city, we’ve gathered a diverse group of workers that are working at or near the minimum wage. They’re white; they’re African American; they’re Latino. They’re women and they’re men. Many of them are working parents.
“Some of them have been moved to tears because they want to be able to support their families with their work.”
One of the myths in our country is that minimum wage workers are just teenagers in the suburbs earning extra pocket money. That’s not who I’ve been seeing at these minimum wage roundtables. I’ve been seeing and hearing stories of people who are working very, very hard. They are proud of the work they do, and they are frustrated. Some of them have been moved to tears because they want to be able to support their families with their work, with their wages. They don’t want to have to go for programs or supplements. They say, “I work hard, and I should be able to support my kids with what I earn.” It’s a matter of pride and dignity for people.
It’s also been powerful for me when we have asked the question, “If we get this raise to $9 an hour, what would you do with that extra $70 in your paycheck each week?” One woman in San Antonio said, “I would buy fresh vegetables for my boys, so that it’s not just rice and beans and potatoes every night.” Another woman said, “I would go to the dentist, because I haven’t been taking care of myself.” Many people said they would buy medicine for themselves that they haven’t been taking. It’s the basics that people need.
One woman in Houston said to me, “I would go to the grocery store and buy a pack of hamburger, and spaghetti noodles, and sauce, so I could cook them all that night for my kids and not have to choose which of those things I would buy to feed them.” People do not have enough money to cover the basics, even people who are working full-time or working multiple jobs.
“The minimum wage has just not kept pace with cost of living for people in this country.”
Amy: Politics is often about timing. Why is it important to increase the minimum wage now?
Mary Beth: We all know that, in these hard economic times, a lot of people are really hurting. It’s just wrong that in this wealthiest of nations, someone could work full-time at minimum wage and make only $14,500 a year. If you have a couple of kids, that means you’re living in poverty. So I think the moment is exactly right for us to say it’s time to do something about that. It’s part of the basic bargain in America—that no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to have a decent job and support yourself and your family. Right now, the minimum wage has just not kept pace with cost of living for people in this country.
Amy: Over the past two decades, campaigns have blossomed across the country advocating different ways to increase local minimum wages or to establish living wage laws. To what extent do those efforts support change at the federal level?
Mary Beth: I think the work at the state, county, and municipal levels has been incredibly important. Since 2009, the last time that the federal minimum wage was raised, 19 states and the District of Columbia have gone on their own and raised their minimum wages. That speaks to the broad public support for this. Over 70 percent of Americans support the notion of raising the federal minimum wage. I think all of the work that has gone into those campaigns in states and cities and counties has meant not only concrete victories for working people—putting more money in their pockets—but also building a stronger movement around the need to raise wages and reward work.
“It’s just wrong that in this wealthiest of nations, someone could work full-time and make only $14,500 a year.”
Amy: We know from experience that employers who oppose minimum wage or living wage increases always argue that jobs will move away, or that they will have to lay people off if the raises pass. How are you inoculating against those arguments this time around?
Mary Beth: As you correctly say, they’re really the same arguments that get trotted out every time we have a debate about raising the minimum wage. The good news is that the economic research has, over and over again, disputed their claims. Raising the minimum wage doesn’t have a negative impact on job growth.
The other piece, I think, is that this is good for our economy. When you put money in the pockets of working people, they spend it. They spend it on groceries, on gas, on shoes for their kids to go to school. And consumer spending has always been an engine of growth in the American economy. So it’s more than the idea that this doesn’t hurt job growth; it is good for the economic recovery to raise the minimum wage.
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Amy B. Dean is a freelance writer, labor activist, and social entrepreneur. She is a former public policy fellow at The Century Foundation, an editorial board member of the New Labor Forum, and the co-author of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.