Oregon has been a national leader in setting standards that enable working families to put food on the table, keep the heat on and live decent, healthy lives. With our minimum wage at $7.50, we have raised the bar for low-income workers. Isn't it about time that our federal government did the same?
Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 1997. But it gets worse; the real buying power of the minimum wage is the lowest it has been since 1955.
O.K., let's just take a moment to imagine this scenario: You've worked a long, hard 40-hour week. Today is payday and you get a whopping $206 — and that's before taxes. Okay, now let's multiply that by four weeks and, voila, there's your monthly salary, $824 — again, before taxes.
With this salary, how do you pay for food, rent, phone, electricity or anything else? This is not a hypothetical situation. Hundreds of thousands of hard-working people in this country are not getting a fair deal. They are house cleaners, day care workers, coffee slingers, caregivers, bookstore workers, retail clerks, janitors. They are a part of the fabric that keeps our society and our economy going. They deserve to get paid a living wage — a wage that can stop the poverty treadmill.
Let us not forget as well that people of color are disproportionately represented in the ranks of these hard-working people. Raising the minimum wage is a first step and the least we can do.
The 110th Congress claims it has heard the voice of the people. The House of Representatives has announced its 100-hour agenda, and raising the minimum wage is a key piece of it. I applaud these efforts, but it's not just up to Congress. The Senate needs to do the right thing as well and support raising the federal minimum wage.
However, we Oregonians are watching out that the efforts to raise the minimum wage are not polluted with tax breaks for the rich or other pork barrel spending measures that would dilute a minimum wage increase. We have not forgotten the slyly crafted trifecta legislation of 2006 that connected a minimum wage hike to the abolishment of the estate tax.
We need legislation unburdened by add-ons that can start addressing some of the systemic problems that create a class of working poor, many of whom cannot sustain themselves or their families.
Community and political leaders in Oregon have raised the bar and now we need them to play a leadership role at the national level. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Sen. Wyden, D-Ore., Oregonians are calling on you to help lead our country in the right direction.
In the spirit of community, let's make work pay. A take-home paycheck of $206 after 40 hours of work cannot support an individual, much less a family.
Jo Ann Bowman, is the associate director of Oregon Action, a community activist organization.