The day I spoke with Idaho minimum wage activist Anne Nesse, it was quite cold in her hometown of Coeur d'Alene — 29 degrees, to be exact. The harsh winters came up more than once during our conversation about low wages in the northwestern state.
“We’re at the bottom,” Nesse said. “We have the lowest wages in the whole nation and we’re cold up here.”
Staying warm should hardly be a luxury in a state notorious for its cold winters, but keeping up with basic necessities can be a challenge for Idaho’s working families. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Idaho leads the nation in the percentage of workers — 7.7 percent — who work at or below minimum wage. In fact, Idaho residents earned less in 2012 than just about everyone else in the country, ranking 49 out of 50 in per capita income. (Mississippi holds the bottom spot on the list.)
But Nesse is hoping that will change this year. As the founder of Raise Idaho, she’s busy collecting signatures to get a minimum wage raise on the ballot in November. The goal is to raise Idaho’s minimum wage from $7.25 (the federal minimum wage) to $9.80 by 2017 and link the state’s minimum wage with the cost of living index to keep up with inflation. The ballot initiative would also raise the minimum wage for tipped workers from $3.35 an hour to $5.90.
The signature collecting is a bit of a fallback plan. Nesse also authored a bill (based on the proposed federal Fair Minimum Wage Act) that she hopes the state legislature will act on this session. But she doesn’t sound overly confident on that front — “you’d like to think that our governing bodies would take this on, but it’s very, very rare,” she told me.
So Nesse is turning to the people of Idaho to stand up for working families instead. The campaign’s goal is to collect 84,000 signatures, of which it has about one-ninth so far. The campaign has supporters out collecting signatures in just about every town in Idaho, Nesse said.
Nesse, who ran unsuccessfully for her state’s legislature in 2012 and has worked as a teacher and nurse, is not afraid of losing at the ballot box. Someone, she said, has to stand up for Idaho residents working two or even three jobs just make ends meet.
“It’s a human rights issue, not a partisan issue, and you never lose a human rights issue — you just get closer,” Nesse said. “There are too many people running around saying don’t put it on the ballot, what if it loses? But we can’t be afraid to fail.”
New year, new wages
If Nesse and her fellow advocates are successful, Idaho will join a number of states in raising the minimum wage.
This new year brought with it higher minimum wages in 13 states. In nine states — Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — wages went up thanks to existing laws that adjust wages in accordance with inflation. In Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, the raises are due to legislative action, and in New Jersey, a voter-approved ballot measure raised the minimum wage to $8.25. In July, California’s minimum wage hike goes into effect and will eventually rise to $10 an hour by 2016. In the District of Columbia, the minimum wage will rise to $9.50 per hour this year, $10.50 in 2015, and $11.50 in 2016, with automatic increases based on inflation thereafter.
And similar minimum wage movements — either by legislative action or ballot initiative — are gaining ground in Maryland, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Illinois, Alaska, South Dakota, Arkansas and, of course, Idaho.
Unfortunately, raising the minimum wage — which the feds have done only three times in the past three decades — usually meets loud opposition and arguments that better wages equal fewer jobs. However, research has “thoroughly debunked that argument,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project.
“People’s real-world experience with today’s economy is quickly debunking these myths,” Gebreselassie told me.
Just earlier this month, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report on the impact of the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which was introduced in the House by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. The bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 in three annual increments and index it to inflation. According to the report’s authors, Jared Bernstein and Sharon Parrott, the argument that such an increase would reduce employment among low-wage workers is not backed with evidence. In addition, the argument that raising the minimum wage would mostly benefit teenagers is also a myth. The authors write:
To the contrary, the vast majority of those who would benefit are adults, most are women, and their families depend on their paychecks; the average worker who would benefit from the (federal proposal) brings home half of the family earnings. This reflects the fact that the low-wage workforce has gotten older and more highly educated in recent decades: between 1979 and 2011, the share of low-wage workers (those earning less than $10 per hour in 2011 dollars) aged 25 to 64 grew from 48 percent to 60 percent, while the share with at least some college education grew from 25 percent to 43 percent.
In terms of job loss, the report cites an overview of more than 60 studies by economist John Schmitt that found the “weight of the evidence points to little or no employment response to modest increases in the minimum wage.” Still, Bernstein and Parrott note that other studies have shown that a minimum wage raise can be tied to some job losses or reduced work hours. But the “impacts are small enough so that the net result for the vast majority of low-wage workers is a net gain in earnings,” the report states.
Overall, the proposed federal wage changes would offer a “net benefit” to low-wage workers and would act as a “policy tool that pushes back against rising inequality,” Bernstein and Parrott write.
Gebreselassie told me that today’s economic climate coupled with the growing low-wage job sector and a groundswell of states passing their own minimum wage hikes may push Congress to take action on the Harkin-Miller bill, “but it’s a hard lift.”
“We’re in a situation now where one in four private-sector workers makes less than $10 an hour, which is an amazingly high figure,” she told me. “The Harkin-Miller bill would benefit 32 million American workers — it’s important literally for millions of people, but it’s also really critical to our economy, which relies primarily on consumer spending.”
Luckily, Gebreselassie noted, the American public is on the side of fairer wages. In a recent Gallup poll, 76 percent of Americans said they’d vote to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour. And even in traditionally conservative states, residents side with workers — for example, more than three-quarters of Missouri voters backed a minimum wage increase in 2006.
“I think part of the battle to win a higher minimum wage is just to get it in the national conversation as a key component to a healthy economic recovery,” Gebreselassie said. “And I think that’s starting to happen.”
To learn more about the nation’s minimum wage campaigns, visit www.raisetheminimumwage.com.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.