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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Voters Approve Minimum Wage Increases, But Congress Won’t Take it Up

Supporters of Proposition 1 which raises the minimum wage to $15 in SeaTac, Washington, celebrate their victory. (Craig Newcomb/Twitter)

Supporters of Proposition 1 which raises the minimum wage to $15 in SeaTac, Washington, celebrate their victory. (Craig Newcomb/Twitter)

Last night, New Jersey voters approved a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage by a dollar to $8.25 an hour.

And in SeaTac, Washington, a proposition that would make the minimum wage in some in airport-related industries $15 an hour was leading with over 50 percent of the vote.

But if raising the minimum wage is so popular with voters, why won’t Congress take up the issue?

NPR’s Marilyn Geewax joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to explain.




From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW.

Last night, New Jersey voters reelected their governor, Chris Christie, but they also overwhelmingly approved a $1 hike in the state's minimum wage. Starting in January, the minimum wage in New Jersey will be $8.25 an hour. Nationwide, the federal minimum wage has been 7.25 an hour since 2009. Now President Obama has asked Congress to raise that again, but so far, lawmakers have not made that happened. So more and more states are taking action on their own.

Joining us now to talk about all this is Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor with NPR. Marilyn, good to have you back. And tell us about what happened last night because it wasn't just New Jersey.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Right. First, in New Jersey, it really was a slam dunk. Voters overwhelmingly approved this wage hike. And now, it joins New York where the state legislature already had approved a wage hike. So we're seeing, you know, real momentum as far as states approving this. But the big thing that, you know, it's kind of a small town, SeaTac, Washington, that's where the surprise was. People appeared to have passed by a fairly good margin an increase to $15 an hour. That's a lot of money.


GEEWAX: But it only applies to people who work in or around Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. So, you know, that's a relatively small group of people. But still, when you think about it, it's not just mechanics or pilots or airport workers like that. It's the people who make sandwiches, who are the janitors, whatever. The - these - everyone across the board will be able to make $15 an hour now, and that's pretty amazing, more than double the federal wage.

HOBSON: So if there is this support for this around the country, why hasn't Congress raised the federal minimum?

GEEWAX: That's interesting. The federal wage was last raised in July of 2009. It's been at this $7.25 for a long time now. And President Obama, at the start of the year, during his State of the Union Address, said he wanted to raise the rate to $9 an hour. But it always has a lot of resistance in Congress because, you know, if you think about it, every single member of Congress has at least one restaurant in their district. There are often lots and lots of restaurants.

And the restaurant owners are really opposed to higher wages as well as the small business owners. So the lawmakers get a lot of lobbying. They hear a lot about it when they go back to their districts from the small business people. So there's a lot of resistance at a federal level to raising this federal minimum wage. But as we said, you know, on the state and city level, the voters are going around the lawmakers and just taking these direct ballot initiatives.

HOBSON: Well, yeah. And the argument against it always comes from these business leaders who would say, if you raise the minimum wage, you're going to have fewer jobs created as a result of that. What does the economic research show about the impact of raising the wage?

GEEWAX: Well, the wage has been set for 75 years now. So there's been a lot of time to look at the economic impact of it. And most studies actually show that the impact on total employment is pretty marginal. You know, in any specific business, if suddenly you have to pay more in wages, you may not be able to hire an - another worker, or you may have to let someone go.

But overall, if consumers have more money in their pocket, you know, a lot of those low-wage workers, as soon as they get some more money, they can, you know, get a haircut, buy another pizza, whatever. They help stimulate the economy so that, overall in the aggregate, you end up with somewhat, you know, breaking even where you have jobs shift, but they're not necessarily shrinking.

HOBSON: Marilyn Geewax, NPR senior business editor, thank you as always.

GEEWAX: Oh, it's good to be with you, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And let us know what you think. Does the minimum wage need to go up across the country? Should it be more than $7.25 an hour? You can go to hereandnow.org and weigh in with your thoughts. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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