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Tom Harbold: Minimum should be a livable wage

During a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Sen. Elizabeth Warren cited a study that suggested the federal minimum wage would have stood at nearly $22 an hour today if it had kept up with increased rates in worker productivity since 1960.

She made this point during an exchange with Dr. Arindrajit Dube, a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who has studied the economic impact of minimum wage. In response, Dube noted that if the income for minimum-wage workers had kept pace with increases in income for the top 1 percent of wage-earners, minimum wage would actually be closer to $33 an hour.

In reporting on this exchange, the Huffington Post was quick to add that it didn't appear that Warren was actually trying to make the case for a $22 an hour minimum wage, but rather, highlighting the results of a recent study that showed flat minimum wage growth over the past 40-plus years coinciding with surging inequality across a number of economic indicators.

That may be, but the more I think about it, the more steamed I get. We're arguing about raising the minimum wage to a measly $10 an hour, while more equitable and reasonable criteria indicate that it should be between $22 and $33 an hour? To put this in perspective, let's look at something concrete that we can all appreciate: housing.

An infographic released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition last year shows that there isn't a single state in the country where it's possible to work 40 hours per week at minimum wage and afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent. That figure is adjusted according to where in the country one lives, and the economic conditions prevailing there, so it varies from location to location.

But think of that: nowhere in the entire United States is it possible for, say, a single mom working a 40-hour week at minimum wage to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. Care to guess how many hours a week one would have to work at the current minimum wage to afford one in Maryland? 137 hours. That means that even two people working full-time at minimum wage cannot afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment in this state. There is something badly wrong with this picture.

Regardless of the precise dollar amount, minimum wage should be a living wage. That is to say, someone who is willing to work for 40 hours a week should be able to live a decent life on the proceeds. That was true when FDR said it, all the way back in 1933, and it's just as true now.

FDR said, "It seems to me ... that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By 'business' I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level - I mean the wages of decent living."

Twenty-two dollars hour sounds like a decent starting place, actually. The estimated value of volunteer time for 2011 was $21.79 per hour, according to independentsector.org, so why should paid work be worth any less?

And yes, I understand about truly small businesses and artisans and the fact that they operate close to the margin as it is, and if they had to pay more for minimum wage they couldn't afford to hire anyone. I understand and appreciate that. However, that doesn't change the fact that minimum wage ought to be a living wage. If that's not possible under our current paradigm, then we need to find ways to change that paradigm. Our future well-being depends on it.

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