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WASHINGTON, D.C. - It sure feels like a contradiction. The four states that approved minimum wage increases in the midterm elections also sent Republicans to Washington who are opposed to an increase on the federal level.
That’s what happened in Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota and Nebraska where voters passed citizen-backed initiatives to raise the wage above the federal level of $7.25.
“The public is way out in front of policy makers of understanding the kitchen table economics of this,” Nebraska State Senator Danielle Conrad, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know if it’s political or ideological opposition or people (in Washington) are out of touch with the struggles of working families. I think there are also a lot of conservative values inherent in insuring that hard work is met with pay.”
Since 2002, 14 minimum wage initiatives have been on local ballots and all have passed. Public opinion polling also has steadily showed public support for increases. A Pew report released in January found that 73 percent of the public favors raising the federal minimum wage from its current level. The report showed that if you break that down to party lines, 90 percent of Democrats support it and 53 percent of Republicans also do.
The disconnect, though, is that many members of Congress – especially Republicans -- do not support minimum wage increases even when their constituents do. The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009, and this year Congress failed to pass a bill to raise it to $10.10. The most common argument against raising the minimum wage is that it leads to a decrease in jobs and is therefore bad for business and workers.
“Conservative minds are still basically against it but the voters aren’t,” said Sylvia Allegretto a labor economist at University of California, Berkeley. Voters “understand more about inequality and their wages being at best stagnant and at worst declining. Low wages are lower today than they have been 30 or 40 years ago. So people understand that part of the problem there is just not enough money in the pockets of workers.”
It seems that the minimum wage is no longer a matter of politics for many people. They want it regardless of their personal politics and regardless of whether they send Republicans to Congress.
“You have about 70 percent of Americans supporting an increase and Congress won’t even take it up,” said Ed Flanagan, chair of Alaskans for a Fair Minimum Wage. He says that’s because if you’re a federal lawmaker “you’re courting the Koch Brothers or the American Legislative Exchange Council’s agenda. And then you can’t subscribe to minimum wage.”
Looking forward, though, something might have to change. Either conservative voters will start voting Democratic (unlikely), or conservative candidates will change their views on minimum wage to get elected (apparently more likely).
Already some members of Congress who are opposed to a federal raise seem to have less of a problem supporting it locally. Many of them have used the argument that a federal raise would be “too much too soon” but that a statewide raise is less government interference. However, that seems to leave open the question: If it’s bad for business and workers on the federal level, why isn’t it bad for business and workers on the state level?
Republicans Tom Cotton, the new senator from Arkansas, and Dan Sullivan, who is headed to the Senate from Alaska, changed their opinions on state minimum wage increases in the middle of their races, while remaining opposed to increasing federal minimum wage.
Wage-raising advocates, though, hope conservative members of Congress won’t stop at supporting a raise on the state level.
“I’m hopeful that all policy makers will look at the results of the minimum wage initiatives over the last few years and see that there is a strong support for modest evolution of minimum wage policy,” Conrad said. “I think that these races provide a clear wake-up call to policy makers at every level of government that it’s important that they don’t ignore the plight of working families.”