Chicago Sun-Times editorial: Minimum wage hike overdue

 Chicago, let’s raise the minimum wage.

Let’s make life better for our lowest-wage workers and those a notch above.

Let’s hike a minimum wage that has eroded so deeply it is now, in real buying power, well below 1968 levels.

Let’s give our economy a boost, even while acknowledging the downsides of a wage hike.

Chicago, let’s make a big statement: We don’t stand by while our neighbors struggle.

In this election season, where the fight for the “progressive” vote is intense, the City Council is considering two proposals — boosting the wage from $8.25 to $13 or $15 an hour. A panel convened last spring by Mayor Rahm Emanuel recommended $13, phased in over four years. Emanuel and his council allies are backing that.

Another group of aldermen is pushing $15, phased in over one year for big businesses and four years for smaller ones. Mayoral candidate Ald. Bob Fioretti and not-yet-declared candidate and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis both support $15.

Given the high cost of living in Chicago, which justifies a higher minimum in the city than in the rest of Illinois, the minimum should be raised to at least $13. There’s a good argument for hiking the minimum even more, but at what point does a higher minimum wage become an undue burden on city businesses, especially those that border suburbs? That’s a City Council debate worth having. What we can say for sure is that something has to give.

Why now?

Most Chicagoans, we suspect, are pretty tired of waiting for someone else to do the right thing. Congress won’t act, though the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is appallingly low and has failed miserably to keep pace with inflation (the 1968 federal minimum wage was $10.60 in today’s dollars). A proposal to raise Illinois’ $8.25 minimum to $10.65 has a shot, but Chicago still warrants a higher minimum than the rest of the state.

As most Chicagoans are aware, income inequality and lack of social mobility (you’re born into one income group, you stay in that group) are at all-time highs. The bottom 20 percent of American workers by income — some 28 million people — earn less than $9.89 an hour, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. Income in that group fell 5 percent between 2006 and 2012, all while income at the top grew.

And low-wage workers — those making between the minimum and $10 an hour — aren’t just teens flipping burgers. Some 40 percent are 35 years or older; 27 percent have children.

It is true, as critics of a minimum wage hike point out, that the majority of people earning minimum wage are not supporting a family; they are usually second or third job-holders in households with other income. They also note that most minimum-wage workers don’t live below the poverty line, which makes raising the minimum a relatively ineffective tool for lifting people out of poverty. By some estimates, just 11 percent of those who would gain from a wage hike live in poverty-level households.

All true, but not so true as to deny giving our city’s lowest-wage workers a long-overdue raise.

Those living just above the poverty line are still poor by any common-sense definition. An extra $200 a week for many could mean keeping the lights on. The mayor’s task force estimates that nearly 31 percent of Chicago’s workers make $13 per hour or less.

And while, yes, there are more effective anti-poverty tools (such as expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, more child care and housing subsidies, universal preschool, universal health care), we don’t see critics of a minimum wage hike lining up to support those reforms.

Chicago is in triage mode here, which means you start where you can — with a wage hike that will make a real difference for low-wage workers and also boost the economy as they spend their newly earned cash — and build momentum for more effective anti-poverty measures.

A wealth of research argues that a moderate hike in the minimum wage has only a modest impact on the number of jobs. And higher wages can result in less employee turnover and lower training costs.

Chicago, let’s quit waiting around for others to do the right thing. Let’s show what we stand for.

Let’s raise the minimum wage.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel signs an executive order requiring city contractors pay $13 minimum wage. Wednesday September 3 2014 | Brian

Mayor Rahm Emanuel signs an executive order requiring city contractors to pay

a $13 minimum wage. Wednesday, September 3, 2014 | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times