Recently, Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin ran away from a veteran who was trying to ask him about what he was going to do about raising the minimum wage.
As a veteran, I was dismayed that a U.S. congressman would try to avoid someone who served our nation. But then I began to consider the issue of the minimum wage and why a veteran like this one would be so concerned about seeing it raised.
When I volunteered to serve in the armed forces, I was motivated by a sense of pride in America’s status as a land of opportunity. Too many of the soldiers I served with have come home to economic hardships unbefitting their service and our country. Vets are not immune from the downward trend toward low wages and low incomes in our economy, and I know many who struggle just to meet their basic needs.
We believe as a country that anyone who puts in a full day’s work should be able to live off their earnings. This is one reason we established a federal minimum wage more than 70 years ago. But July 24 marked the three-year anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was increased. For the past three years, the minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 per hour — a little more than $15,000 per year for full-time work — even as the cost of basic expenses like food or gasoline has continued to rise.
Thankfully, Congress has started to act in order to ensure that low-wage workers do not have to endure another year of stagnant pay. Just a matter of days after the anniversary, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012, which would raise the minimum wage to $9.80 by 2014, increase the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the full minimum wage, and index both to automatically increase with the rising cost of living.
If these bills were passed, more than 28 million low-wage workers in the U.S. would see their paychecks rise by more than $5,000 per year. The workers who would benefit from this bill are people who many of us meet every day — checkout clerks, restaurant servers and homecare workers — almost 90 percent of whom are adults older than 20.
While raising the minimum wage would provide much-needed support to these workers, it also would help support the economy as a whole by boosting consumer spending and giving businesses the customer base that they need in order to start hiring again. If we acted now to pass this proposed increase in the minimum wage, we could prop up our frustratingly sluggish economic recovery by generating more than $25 billion in GDP and creating the equivalent of more than 100,000 jobs.
We cannot sit by while the paychecks of America’s lowest-paid workers continue to get squeezed by rising prices. Raising the minimum wage is a modest step that we could take right now to ensure that real opportunity is available for all who work for it.
For veterans, when you consider that the highest unemployment rate among veterans is in the youngest age bracket (18-24), minimum-wage jobs often are what these young returning troops rely on while they gain the skills and education necessary to build a career.
But if we don’t pass a minimum-wage increase, we have little reason to expect the economy to provide the same boost on its own. Low-wage jobs, primarily in the service sector, already have accounted for a majority of all job growth in the wake of the recession. Meanwhile, the largest employers of low-wage workers — retail giants like Walmart and fast-food chains like McDonalds — actually are earning stronger profits today than they were before the recession even as they continue to pay their employees the minimum wage.
The promise of opportunity in America is threatened today by a job market that does not allow many to work their way out of poverty. As a veteran, I have seen men and women in uniform make incredible sacrifices to protect this promise of opportunity. It’s time for Congress to do its part as well by raising the minimum wage and stop running away from the issue in more ways than one.
Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran, is chairman of VoteVets.org, a veterans group with over 220,000 supporters.