Stop making this issue 
a political football; be fair to workers

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Op-ed by Stephanie Coble Hankins
Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jul 28 2010
Pro & Con: Should the minimum wage be indexed for inflation?

YES: Stop making this issue a political football; be fair to workers

On top of all the problems working families face in this bleak economy, add one more: For the first time in three years the federal minimum wage won’t go up this summer.

From 2007 through 2009, the nation’s lowest paid workers received long modest, long overdue increases in their paychecks each July. In 2007, Congress finally raised the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, phased in over three years.

But this year workers will get nothing. The federal minimum wage will once again be flat unless Congress takes action again.

Until 2007, the federal minimum wage had been stuck at $5.15 an hour for 10 long years. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers like waitresses and carwash workers is even lower. It’s been frozen at a meager $2.13 an hour since 1991.

For the child care worker who watches your toddler and the waitress at your local diner, the minimum wage plays a big role in setting their pay scales.

That’s why farsighted business leaders like Costco’s CEO Jim Sinegal support raising the minimum wage to help America’s working families.

That’s why this summer the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition has trained college interns at DOOR Atlanta to teach more than 200 high school students on mission trips to Atlanta about the struggle of Georgia’s minimum-wage workers.

Our goal is to help these students recognize that families can’t make ends meet with wages that remain stagnant year after year.

The solution to this problem is straight-forward: Stop making the minimum wage a political football. Simply “index” it, so that it is automatically adjusted each year to keep up with the cost of living.

Indexing is already the law in 10 states. Workers in those states see a small automatic bump in their wages every year, helping families keep from falling further behind on basic expenses.

Florida has indexed its state minimum wage. Georgia isn’t. So while janitors and elder care workers in Jacksonville will be getting a raise Jan. 1, the same workers in Valdosta won’t.

In fact, Georgia’s state minimum wage is still $5.15 an hour, meaning that workers not covered by the federal minimum wage can still be legally this poverty wage in our state.

HB 290, introduced by Rep. Doug McKillip (D-Athens) would raise Georgia’s minimum wage to the federal rate of $7.25 an hour and index it to the cost of living. Despite broad public support to raise the minimum wage, the bill has yet to receive a hearing in the House committee.

This is really a shame. Fixing the minimum wage is not only vital for working families — it’s key to restoring consumer spending that our economy needs to grow.

A strong minimum wage puts money into the pockets of low-income families who spend it in their local communities, increasing local buying power on which our economy depends. According to the Economic Policy Institute, last year’s rise in the minimum wage (from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour) generated $5.5 billion in new consumer spending.

It’s not just the economics of a higher minimum wage that make sense.

It’s also simply the right thing to do, for our neighbors who are working hard and still struggling to stay afloat.

During these summer months, when many churches will spend so much to serve others on mission trips around the world, I pray that the faith community can mobilize around this crucial issue — one that is well-reflected in the second half of Jesus’ greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Rev. Stephanie Coble Hankins is an ordained Presbyterian minister with the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition.