States and municipalities across the nation are leading a localized push to raise the minimum wage, driven largely by Democrats, who see it as an appeal to working-class Americans amid growing inequity.
Efforts in Congress to raise the national minimum wage above $7.25 an hour have stalled. But numerous local governments are forging ahead, in some cases voting to dramatically increase low-wage workers' pay. The efforts, while supported by many unions, threaten to create a patchwork of wage rates that could mean workers in some areas will be entitled to vastly less than those working similar jobs nearby. The campaigns reach from coast to coast.
As minimum wage fights have gone increasingly local, Democrats have led the charge, working to define themselves as the party of blue-collar workers, while casting Republicans as defenders of corporations and big business. Backing minimum wage increases, even in otherwise conservative states, sharpens that definition, they believe. Minimum-wage increases have broad public support, and income inequality issues have touched a nerve in many places.
"When the pope starts criticizing trickle-down economics, you know the gulf between rich and poor has become too much to ignore," said Democratic consultant Tom Lindenfeld, who has close ties to labor unions.
President Barack Obama has called for an increase in the national rate, mentioning it in his most recent State of the Union address and recently signing on to a proposal from congressional Democrats to set a $10.10 hourly rate. But congressional Republicans have opposed any increase, saying it would hurt employers and curtail job growth.
"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in February.
Many states long ago set their rates slightly above the federal minimum, and a handful of cities joined them. But the recent push is distinguished by the number of jurisdictions involved and the magnitude of the increases proposed.
"Congress can't do anything right now, and even if they could, they wouldn't even come close to the level that various cities and states around the country are looking at," said Phil Mendelson, Democratic chairman of the District of Columbia Council, set to take an initial vote Tuesday setting the city's minimum wage at $11.50 an hour by 2016.
Even in red states, Democrats see opportunity in minimum-wage increases. Democrats are deep in the minority in South Dakota's and Arkansas' legislatures, for instance. But both states allow for statewide referenda, and Democrats there are gathering signatures to put minimum wage increases on the ballot in 2014.
At its highest purchasing power, in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation's minimum wage approached a rate of 50 percent of the nation's median wage. That's a ratio economists say is still important in assessing its ability to keep low-income residents out of poverty.
But barring action from Congress and the state legislatures, those jurisdictions will be surrounded by areas guaranteeing substantially lower wages -- as much as 30 percent less, if the current federal minimum holds. The effects of having such vastly different rates in the same metropolitan area are largely unknown.