It’s time to raise the minimum wage

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By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson – Special to the American-Statesman

Last month, the nation celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, achievements and his dream for America.

While most Americans recognize Dr. King as a civil rights leader striving for equality of opportunity, he was also an advocate for the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the forgotten. He championed the plight of the poor, organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign,” pushed Congress for a poor people’s bill of rights, and ultimately sacrificed his life standing up for fair wages with Memphis sanitation workers.

In the nearly 46 years since Dr. King’s death, America and Texas have made great strides in some areas, but only small, halting steps in others. Even in good times, Texas has done a very poor job of providing for the poorest among us. Our rich are getting richer while our poor are falling further behind, too often struggling to put food on the table.

Today, even more so than during Dr. King’s life, the dividing line in Texas is just as much about green as it is black, white, or brown. All too often, it’s not the content of one’s character that matters — it’s the contents of one’s wallet.

More than 4.6 million Texans live in poverty each day, including one out of four children. Texans are laboring harder, but hourly wages, when adjusted for inflation, are falling. At the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a parent with a full-time job still does not earn enough to be above the federal poverty line. It’s certainly not a living wage, regardless of Texas’ relative low cost of living.

We’re not talking about an insignificant number of people, either. With 452,000 Texans paid at or below the minimum wage in 2012, far too many can’t make ends meet despite full-time employment. Those nearly half a million Texans give our state the unfortunate distinction of ranking second in the nation in the percentage of hourly workers who earn at or below minimum wage.

If we are serious about honoring King’s legacy, it’s time we did something about it. A bill pending in Congress would do just that by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 and indexing it to inflation to ensure it preserves its value. After all, the minimum wage has failed to maintain its buying power — the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.71 today when adjusted for inflation.

Using recent history as a guide, we know the chances are slim that D.C. gridlock will evaporate enough to get this bill passed. Fortunately, Texas can act on its own, just as we pushed it to do seven years ago. When we filed legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2007, we knew it was an uphill climb — and we acknowledge that it still is today, despite poll after poll showing Democrats and Republicans alike support increasing the minimum wage. But an uphill climb alone can never be a reason to not pursue something that will improve the daily life of millions of Texans.

In a recent study analyzing the impact of the proposed increase to $10.10, the Economic Policy Institute found that almost 2 million Texas workers would see their wage increased.

It’s not just teens who would benefit, either. Adults older than 20 make up 88 percent of workers nationwide who would receive a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $10.10. More than half work full-time and a full third are older than 40.

Concerns about resulting job losses have largely proved to be illusory, as rigorous research has shown time and time again that that minimum wage increases do not reduce employment.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountaintop, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.

Raising the minimum wage rewards the strong work ethic that built Texas, allowing someone who works hard at a full-time job to support a family and the opportunity to access a bridge out of poverty.

Instead of merely celebrating the life of Dr. King with rhetoric, let’s stand together and honor what he stood for by taking meaningful action towards the realization of his dream. It’s time to raise Texas’ minimum wage.

State Senator Rodney Ellis and State Representative Senfronia Thompson are both from Houston.

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