By Stephen K. Cooper
Special to the AFRO
Almost nine years ago, the minimum wage rose to $5.15 per hour and gas sold for about $1.20 a gallon. Now, gas prices have nearly tripled, but millions of low-income workers are still waiting for Congress to approve their first pay raise since 1997.
With an eye towards the November elections, U.S. House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), has proposed hiking the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over a two-year period. Republicans have blocked that effort, but the issue appears to be gaining momentum in Congress.
"A minimum wage earner who works full-time earns just $10,700 a year, leaving them well below the poverty line," Hoyer said. "The average family of four spends $150 a week on groceries, which would be almost four days' pay for a minimum wage worker. It takes a minimum wage worker an entire day's pay to fill up their gas tank."
In late June, seven Republicans sided with Hoyer to add a minimum wage increase to a 2007 House spending bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services. House GOP leaders blocked the measure from coming to a vote on the floor, saying the pay increase would kill jobs and harm the economy.
The minimum wage issue holds particular interest to African Americans and other minorities, who would disproportionately benefit from an increase, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan economic think tank based in the District of Columbia.
African Americans represent 11.1% of the total workforce, but are 15.3% of workers affected by an increase, according to statistics from EPI. Similarly, 13.4% of the total workforce is Hispanic, but Hispanics are 19.7% of workers affected by an increase.
In the U.S., approximately 6.6 million Americans now earn $5.15 per hour, including 1.6 million working parents.
"We've had congressional raises. We've had massive CEO raises, but we haven't had an increase in the minimum wage and that's just wrong," said U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala. "We have the power to improve the standard of living for a lot of people in this country who are struggling economically."
Davis, who represents Birmingham and Selma, Ala., said many people in his District are earning below minimum wage salaries and living in poverty.
Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., said he signed a "discharge petition," which would force a floor vote on the Democrats' minimum wage bill if supporters secure 218 Member signatures. There are currently 189 signatures on the petition.
So far, those efforts have met with some success. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said the House leadership would probably end up dealing with the minimum wage issue, even though he personally believes it is bad economic policy.
Boehner gave no timetable, but some lawmakers believe it could come to a vote shortly after the July 4 recess.
"As I've suggested to one of my colleagues, we're probably going to have to find some way to deal with it. There's been no decision on how," said Boehner, who accused Democrats of using the issue to attempt to wrest the House from Republican control in the November elections.
"It's a cynical ploy on the part of House Democrats -- and Senate Democrats, for that matter -- to use this partisan effort and to play this ploy off the backs of the very people who need help," he said.
However, in a recent interview on C-Span television, Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Ms., said the Senate would like bring minimum wage legislation up for a vote this year. He said approval is likely if proponents of a wage hike can work out an acceptable increase over a logical timeframe.