In this year's State of the Union address, President Barack Obama advocated raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2015. He also wants to index the minimum wage to inflation -- a key reform.
Working at minimum wage pays a full-time employee $14,500 a year. Were it to rise to $9, a full-time worker would earn roughly $18,000 a year, still below the poverty level.
The president says the hike he seeks would raise income for 15 million people. But if he is going to make this fight, why not pursue a more meaningful minimum wage and try to lift more people out of poverty?
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, is prime sponsor of S 460, a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, plus cost-of-living increases. The measure, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, rejects the argument that a higher wage would scare employers and inhibit job creation.
According to many economists, very little of that actually happens. What pressure the minimum wage exerts on the total number of jobs is more than made up for by a rising standard of living for the work force.
The minimum wage was last raised in July 2009, from $6.55 an hour. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have minimums above the federal level. Washington state's is the highest, at $9.19 an hour; Pennsylvania's is the same as the national level. Ten states already increase their minimum wages annually to account for inflation.
There is no reason not to raise the minimum wage. But as with immigration, tax reform and budget balancing, it will be tough to get a higher wage through the Republican-controlled House.
President Obama will have to pick his battles. In his first term, he dropped his advocacy of a higher minimum. If it's a priority for him now, he should fight for a number that will make a real difference in people's lives.
The president's political capital is limited, but people at the low end of the economy need help. He should seek not just a higher minimum wage, but also a meaningful one.