A minimum wage that works

At $9.47 an hour, Washington state has the highest minimum wage among the 50 states, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But even at that rate, a family of three with one wage-earner grossing a little less than $19,700 a year would still fall below the federal poverty level for 2014 by about $100.

Dissatisfaction with income inequality has brought public protests by workers in the fast-food, health care and other service industries for a $15-an-hour wage. The cities of SeaTac and Seattle are now living laboratories for the consequences, intended and unintended, as a $15-an-hour wage is phased in.

Two proposals — one in the Legislature, the other in Congress — are also seeking to address income inequality, although each shoots for what might be a more easily attainable target and one that more small businesses could live with: $12 an hour.

In the Legislature, a House bill to increase the state’s minimum wage to $12 by 2019, has advanced to the 30-day special session. In Congress, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, have introduced the Raise the Wage Act, which would increase the federal minimum wage $1 an hour starting in 2016 to $12 by 2020, and thereafter base increases on the growth of the federal median wage.

“No one who works hard in a full-time job should have to live in poverty,” Murray said in introducing the legislation.

At $12 an hour, our family of three would have a gross income of nearly $25,000, markedly above the federal poverty level.

Pundits will claim Murray and her fellow Democrats are not being realistic about the legislation’s odds and only attempting to establish income inequality as a battle line for 2016’s political campaigns. But the Republicans in the House have already helped to draw that line with their vote in April to repeal the estate tax, which would benefit only the nation’s wealthiest 5,500 households and result in a $269 billion hit to federal revenues over a decade. The political ad almost writes itself when you stand those 5,500 richest households against the estimated 38 million Americans that Murray’s legislation would benefit.

But this can be more than just a campaign plank. Murray, as her stature grows in the Senate, is well positioned to lead the effort. She’s already shown an ability to craft bipartisan deals and legislation with Republicans, most recently the proposed reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act that she worked out with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee.

Public and even corporate recognition of the need for better pay is growing. Although the 2014 elections were touted as a Republican landslide, voters endorsed measures to increase the minimum wage in five states, four of them Republican strongholds. Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and others have announced recent wage increases for their employees.

While we wait to see the outcomes of Seattle and SeaTac’s experience with their wage increases, a stepped increase to $12 an hour seems a reasonable compromise that addresses income fairness and the ability of employers to pay their workers a better wage and stay in business.

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