Bernie Sanders pushes minimum wage hike: Is $15 too much?

Sen. Bernie Sanders is introducing legislation Wednesday that might once have been considered far-out, but there are now signs that much of the country is warming up to a $15 minimum.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont addresses a rally calling for a national $15 minimum wage bill on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 22, 2015.

[Updated 4:25 p.m. Eastern Time

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist who is vying for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, was set to introduce legislation in Congress Wednesday that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The bill, a companion version of which was also to be introduced in the House, would gradually raise the wage to $15 by 2020.

"It is a national disgrace that millions of full-time workers are living in poverty and millions more are forced to work two or three jobs just to pay their bills," Senator Sanders said at a rally with striking contract workers Wednesday near the US Capitol.

The proposed legislation puts a bit of distance between himself and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has not so far officially endorsed a nationwide $15 minimum wage.

But whereas the Vermont senator’s wage proposal might once have been considered a far-out idea, there are now signs that much of the country is warming up to a $15 minimum. 

In January, Hart Research Associates released a survey that found 63 percent of Americans supported raising the minimum wage to $15.

Spurred on by massive demonstrations by fast-food workers for wage increases, US cities including Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles in the past year have moved to raise their minimum wages to $15 an hour. 

And on Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to bring the $15 hike to unincorporated areas of the most populous US county. A New York labor panel recommended a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 among fast-food workers on Wednesday in a win for the people who originally took to the streets for a wage raise.

The acting state commissioner of labor, Mario Musolino, is expected to accept the board’s recommendations, reported The New York Times

Such developments have been accompanied by a discussion about the current federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 for six years.

That figure represents a considerable drop from its 1968 peak of about $10 in today’s dollars. Currently, 29 states have a minimum wage higher than the federally mandated minimum.

“That is a starvation wage,” Sanders said of the federal minimum at an AFL-CIO event in New Hampshire in May. “Anyone who works 40 hours in a week in America should not be in poverty. That’s the simple reality.”

The issue has also been taken up by President Obama, who has called on lawmakers to raise the wage in several of his State of the Union addresses.

“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, try it,” Mr. Obama said in this year’s speech. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

Congressional efforts to raise the minimum have inched ahead. The Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would have raised the wage to $10.10, failed in the Senate last year. A bill introduced this year by Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington pegged the number at $12, and it is endorsed by the Obama administration.

Still, a $15 minimum wage plan has its critics, especially commentators who say the trade-off in employment would do more harm than good.

A $15 minimum wage would be higher than the median wages in eight states, according to Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post.

“Yes, it’s distressing that wages in these states and territories are so low. But trying to change the prevailing wage – rather than just the bottom of the income distribution – by fiat is likely to cause massive job losses,” Ms. Rampell writes.

Others, however, see change as inevitable. "The days of $9- to $10-an-hour are over, for sure," Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, which supports minimum wage increases, told CNN Money.

John Cassidy in The New Yorker describes the “living-wage movement” as a major factor in public opinion.

One thing propelling the movement is “an ethical judgment, shared by many Americans regardless of their party politics, that people who work a full week should be able to afford the basics of modern existence,” he writes.

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