Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

September 12, 2005


Minimum Wage Debates: unmarried workers are the most affected

by Thomas F. Coleman
With Hurricane Katrina putting a national spotlight on the plight of the poor, some Democrats in Congress are renewing their call for a hike in the federal minimum wage.  Republicans, in contrast, are calling for more tax breaks for businesses.

Considering that Republicans, who generally oppose minimum wage hikes, are in control of Congress and the Presidency, it seems rather clear that people who work at minimum wage jobs will have to turn to state politicians for any relief in the near future.

The current federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour.  That rate was established by Congress in 1997 and hasn't budged a penny in eight years despite rising costs for housing, fuel, and other necessities.

Seventeen states now have a higher minimum wage than the federal mandate. 

The California Legislature sent a minimum wage hike bill to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week.  Schwarzenegger has promised to veto the measure which, if signed into law, would increase the state's current minimum wage by $1 per hour over the next two years and establish automatic increases, known as indexing, to keep pace with inflation.

California's current rate of $6.75-an-hour is now lower than the rates in five states: Alaska ($7.15), Connecticut ($7.40), Oregon ($7.25), Vermont ($7) and Washington ($7.35, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Governor Linda Lingle, a Republican, did not veto a measure passed by the Hawaii Legislature this year which, in a two-step process, raises the minimum in that state to $7.25 by January 2007. 

Last year the voters in Florida approved a ballot measure which raises the minimum wage to $6.15 and links future raises to inflation.  The initiative passed with 71 percent approval, giving California labor advocates an incentive to take the issue directly to the voters if Schwarzenegger follows through with his threatened veto.

Politicians who oppose minimum wage hikes sometimes argue that most of the people who work at these low-paying jobs are teenagers living at home with their parents.  Opponents claim that this small group of youngsters don't really need higher wages for survival.

But the facts show otherwise.  There is a large pool of minimum wage workers at all age levels, most of whom are adults who are not dependents of their parents any longer but who have full responsibility for their own lives.

According to 2004 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2 million employees in the nation are working at or below the federal minimum wage.  More than 75 percent of these workers are unmarried.

Nearly half of those who work at minimum wages are 25 years of age or older.  So much for the political propaganda that paints these workers as young and carefree teenagers.

Unmarried employees in the 25 to 54 age group are much more likely to be struggling at minimum wages than their married co-workers.  Those who have never married are more than twice as likely to have minimum wage jobs than married workers, while those who are divorced or widowed are 58 percent more likely to do so.

Sometimes I wonder whether the marital status of those in positions of power might play a role, unconscious or otherwise, in their decision to support or oppose minimum wage hikes, which mostly benefit unmarried workers. 

Florida voters approved a boost in the minimum wage.  It so happens that nearly 52 percent of households in Florida are headed by unmarried adults.

Hawaii's Gov. Lingle allowed that state's hike in the minimum wage to become law.  Lingle is unmarried.

In contrast, in Congress, where 85 percent of its members are married, proposals to raise the minimum wage have been defeated for the past several years.  And California's Schwarzenegger, married to a celebrity Democrat, is threatening to veto the minimum wage hike measure now on his desk.

In an ideal world, marital status would not matter when decisions are made concerning the well being, indeed the survival, of low-income wage earners. 

Do the math.  No one can be expected to pay rent, utilities, food, transportation, and other basic costs on less than a "living wage" much less on a federal minimum wage of $5.15 or even on a California minimum wage of $6.75 per hour.

But then again, with federal deficits soaring year after year, and states like California using accounting gimmicks to achieve phony balanced budgets, it should be obvious that our lawmakers are better at juggling and magic tricks than they are at basic mathematics.

Unmarried America 2005

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.