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The Voice of the Black Community

Opinion

Refusal to raise federal minimum wage is racist, classist and elitist
$15 an hour national standard is long past due
 
Published Saturday, March 20, 2021 3:30 pm
by Rev. William Barber

PHOTO | THE MAC ARTHUR FOUNDATION
The Rev. William Barber of Goldsboro is president of Repairers of the Breach and founder of Moral Mondays.

I join workers and labor leaders today to insist that we must raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and we must do it now.


It’s long past time. If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since it was first enacted, it would be over $22 today. At the March on Washington in 1963—the march for jobs and justice—the demand was for $2 an hour. Two dollars in 1963 is $15 in 2021. We’ve been asking for this for almost 60 years.


“It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages,” Dr. King said. “God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.”


This is not liberal demand or a progressive issue. It is a basic moral question about what kind of people we want to be.


Refusing to pass a $15 minimum wage is an ugly form of classicism, elitism and racism. It is a betrayal of the promise every member of Congress makes when they swear to establish justice and promote the general welfare.


And it is an especially monumental betrayal and a grotesque political failure when you look at the numbers. Before the pandemic, 140 million Americans were poor and low-income. That’s 66 million white Americans and 26 million Black Americans—60% of all Black people in this country. Sixty-eight percent of Latino and Native Americans were poor and low-wealth before the current crisis. 


We lost more than half a million people to COVID-19 over the past year. But in the two years prior to that, we lost the same number of people to poverty. In 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign published a report that showed there wasn’t a single county in the country where someone working full time at minimum wage could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment.


This was the widely unacknowledged crisis we faced before COVID. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, we gave workers a name change. We call them “essential workers,” but we are not paying them a living wage.


Poor and low-wage workers were first to go to work, the first to contract COVID, and the first to die from it. But they are the last to get the relief they have long needed.
It took 400 years for African Americans in this country to get from $0 to $7.25. We cannot wait any longer for $15. And let’s be clear: the $2.13 tip wage is a vestige of racism that allowed lower wages for work done mostly by Black people when the original minimum wage was passed. 


Sixty percent of tipped workers today qualify for public assistance. So, the federal government is subsidizing companies that won’t pay their workers while refusing to raise the minimum wage. That isn’t simply morally inconsistent. It’s economically insane.


Members of the Poor People’s Campaign have testified to the reality of what poverty wages mean for them in this moment. Danielle works 70 hours a week trying to survive on $11.25 an hour. A Black man told me he cleans people’s backsides in a medical facility but cannot afford health insurance for himself. I met a lady in West Virginia just last week who’s struggled for years to survive on minimum wage jobs. She said it as clearly as anyone I’ve heard. “This isn’t just about raising the minimum wage. It’s about raising people.”

 
It’s past time that we lift the people at the bottom of the American economy so everyone can rise.


The Rev. William Barber of Goldsboro is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

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