Earlier this week The Times published a column discouraging the state Legislature from raising Illinois’ minimum wage to $15 per hour. More specifically, it insinuated that a minimum wage increase wouldn’t help working families. A Cato Institute study the column references found that “most folks earning minimum wage are either under 25 or working part-time” and that “less than 5 percent of those earning minimum wage are heads of households.” Those numbers are correct but misleading, and its conclusion that a minimum wage increase wouldn’t help working families is flat out wrong.
It’s true that fewer people make the absolute legal minimum wage than most wage-increase supporters would assume. The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only 2.3 percent of the 80.4 million Americans that earn an hourly wage make the federal minimum of $7.25 or less, and that about half of those who do are younger than 25 years old. That said, a state increase to $15 per hour wouldn’t just affect workers making Illinois’ legal minimum, it’d affect anyone making less the increase! Looking at workers who only make the minimum wage erases the struggles of anyone making just a little more than it and ignores those same working families the column insists don’t exist.
When we look at the data we have on workers who make less than the proposed wage increase it tells a much different story than teenagers clocking in for the first time ever or a college student looking for extra money to hold them over for the summer. A 2015 study conducted by the National Employment Law Project found that about 40 percent of working Americans make less than $15 per hour. That group of workers includes disproportionate numbers of women and people of color, and nearly half of this population is older than 35. The jobs they work range from food service to child care to manufacturing and everything in between. It’s absurd to suggest that Illinoisans in this category wouldn’t benefit from this kind of policy, especially in places like the Illinois Valley where job opportunities that pay more than that are hard to come by!
The one thing in the entire column that I agree with is that we’ll have to take the reaction business owners have to mandatory wage increases seriously. It’s probable that they’ll look to eliminate positions, increase costs, or cut hours. We know this because they’ve threatened to do so, but also because most businesses look to do those things even if they’re doing well! Successful corporations with a nation-wide presence and no need to pinch pennies routinely look for opportunities save costs or charge more so shareholders can make more money, even if it means workers and customers alike have to suffer. This is why raising the minimum wage, while good, is insufficient. After Pritzker signs it into law Illinoisans need to continue fighting for everyday people by pursuing policies that give labor more power in their workplace; that guarantee their health, housing, and safety; and that puts more if not all of the profits workers produce back into their hands.
JOEL THORSON, of Chicago and formerly of Streator.