Minimum wage should be increased on a regular basis

Gov. Andrew Cuomo deserves major congratulations to campaigning for an increase in the state minimum

Gov. Andrew Cuomo deserves major congratulations to campaigning for an increase in the state minimum wage to $10.50, and to $11.50 in New York City.

He also deserves credit for pushing the wage board to accept a minimum wage increase for tipped workers — which will go up from $5 to $7.50 at the end of this year.

As far as public policy is concerned, raising the minimum wage is one of the best things the government can do. First, the minimum wage is important for the working poor, who rely on it to make ends meet. Remember: It’s not just students back for summer break. Four in five of those earning the minimum wage are above 20 years old. And many teenage workers qualify for lower rates as it is.

A high minimum wage is important for society as a whole, as it puts more money in hands that will spend it right away. This boosts the economy-at-large, helping all of us. With a high minimum wage, businesses also can rely on low worker turnover and higher productivity. For those interested in a “culture of hard work,” it reinforces the notion that an honest day’s labor is equivalent to an honest day’s salary.

And contrary to what you might hear, almost every study shows that a wage increase has no negative effect on overall employment.

Most of us like the minimum wage, and think it should be higher: Hart Research found last month that three-quarters of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. (This includes a majority of Republicans.)

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, while New York’s is currently $8.75 and will go up to $9 by the end of the year. This represents a yearly income of $18,200, well below the $23,850 considered poverty level for a family of four.

Every couple of years, the issue of raising it comes up again. But it shouldn’t. We should not be having this debate on an ongoing basis. Rather, a continually increasing minimum wage should be the law of the land: New York’s poorest should not have to rely on the whims of the state Legislature to get a pay raise while the cost of living and inflation continue to rise regardless of what we do.

Note that none of the figures I’ve presented have anything to do with cost-of-living, which is (generally speaking) a more targeted measure of prices of specific goods and services. This figure often increases at a faster rate than regular inflation — which means that if we really want to keep pace, we should have the minimum wage even higher.

Consider for a moment that all that is scaled to inflation or cost-of-living. Tax brackets go up each year with inflation, and we accept this as pretty standard. Social Security payments are tied to it, too, as are most components of Medicare. Yet the minimum wage isn’t.

For an indication of how hard this current fight is going to be — and why it needs to be resolved via permanent legislation — note that the restaurant industry has blasted the modest raise for tipped workers as “extreme.”

On the contrary, what’s extreme is paying restaurant workers an abnormally low rate per hour and expecting customers to voluntarily make up the difference. I understand that tipping supposedly encourages good service. But what also encourages good service is knowing that you make good money and would get fired if you didn’t deliver.

If this sounds familiar, it’s how all other jobs work. Why should the pursuit of “good service” be a valid excuse for paying wait staff lower than literally everyone else per hour? Imagine if customers determined the take-home pay for other jobs. Or imagine if the people you interacted with at your job decided if you made money that day.

Perhaps this increase will encourage businesses to move towards a model of paying their workers directly, as is the norm for everyone else.

To conclude: Remember that Hart Research poll that showed 75 percent of Americans support a $12.50 minimum wage by 2020? That poll also showed that 82 of Americans support built-in yearly increases to the current rate.

With no federal action expected on the minimum wage any time soon, New York should act now to set a good minimum wage standard for the nation.

Make it high and have it go up each year.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Gazette Opinion section.

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