Illinois this week joined a growing list of blue states to approve a $15 minimum wage, part of a national "Fight for $15" campaign by Democrats. Pulling the lowest-paid workers up to this level could help narrow what has become America's widest income inequality gap in close to a century.
But opponents are right about one thing: This state-by-state, piecemeal approach could drive some businesses from high-wage states to lower-wage ones, hurting the workers it was meant to help. The solution is a nationwide $15 minimum.
There's a reason some are calling this America's second Gilded Age. About 1 percent of Americans today take home 20 percent of the nation's income; the top 10 percent take fully half. Meanwhile, about 1 in 4 Americans makes less than $10 per hour, for an annual income below the federal poverty line. Not since the 1920s has there been this great a disparity between top and bottom rungs of the economy.
That gap has been widening since Republicans in the 1980s convinced even working people that aiming economic policy toward helping the wealthy would help everyone through a "trickle-down" effect. Clearly, it hasn't worked out that way. Though the trend of falling unemployment that began under President Barack Obama continues today, blue-collar wages have remained close to stagnant, even as corporate earnings have soared.
No rational person suggests building economic policy around a goal of everyone having the same income, but you don't have to embrace Soviet-style communism to understand that the nation's economy can't sustain itself when millions of hard-working Americans live at the edge of poverty.
The problem today is that America's political system is, to a greater extent than ever, two political systems. In red states such as Missouri, Republican elected officials resist minimum wage hikes — even when most voters demand them, as Missourians did last year, raising the previous $7.85 minimum to $12 by 2023. Some Republican legislators are now making moves to undo it.
Democrat-controlled Illinois has gone through no such convulsions. The Legislature approved — and newly installed Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed — a wage jump from $8.25 to $15 by 2025. Other blue states like California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have done likewise.
This patchwork approach isn't a permanent solution. The federal minimum of $7.25, which hasn't increased in a decade, is grossly unrealistic. A gradual increase to $15 over five or six years would minimize the impact on businesses. Annual, programmed cost-of-living adjustments would ensure workers don't keep falling behind.
Voters in Missouri and around the country must recognize which party is standing in the way of the living wage they demand. Republican lawmakers can no longer ignore the loud-and-clear ballot box message that their obstinacy is contributing to real human suffering, not prosperity. Most issues aren't so black-and-white — or should we say, red-and-blue — but this one is.
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