Doing the Job Congress Wouldn't

Fortunately, average Americans aren't as willing as Congress to ignore fellow Americans who are working hard but falling further behind.
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By Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, and Maude Hurd, National President of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

When members of Congress rushed home a month ago to begin frantically campaigning for re-election, they left undone a job that could have helped them peel off the do-nothing label they're now stuck with: raising the minimum wage for the first time since 1996.

Ten years ago in October, low-wage workers got the first installment in what was to be the last minimum wage increase Congress would deliver in a decade. Abandoned at $5.15 an hour, the minimum wage has since lost 20 percent of its purchasing power while working families struggled to keep up with the rising costs of housing, health care, gas and other necessities. Factoring in increases in the cost of living, the minimum wage is now at its lowest value in 51 years.

Fortunately, average Americans aren't as willing as Congress to ignore fellow Americans who are working hard but falling further behind. Most polls agree that on November 7th, voters in six states will overwhelmingly approve referenda raising their state minimum wage levels and indexing them to make sure they keep up with the cost of living. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 1.3 million workers and their families will benefit. Seventy-two percent of the affected workers will be adults age 20 or over, and nearly one quarter will be parents who badly need more money in their pockets to help pay for food, shelter, clothing and medical care.

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have already passed minimum wage rates above the federal minimum, 18 of them and the District since the 2004 federal election. Fifty-eight percent of the national population now lives in states that have minimum wages higher than the federal level - and unlikely states like North Carolina and Arkansas enacted higher minimum wage standards for the first time.

This revolution in the states confirms that Americans understand no one can live on anything close to $5.15 an hour. In a recent survey by the Pew Foundation, 88 percent of voters nationwide say they support raising the minimum wage -- leading us to ask Republican members of Congress who blocked the raise and are desperately seeking more votes on November 7th, "What were you thinking?"

Some of those members no doubt bought the notion that raising the minimum wage eliminates jobs and hurts the economy. That tired and tattered old argument was discredited for the umpteenth time last week when 650 leading economists -- among them five Nobel laureates and six former American Economics Association presidents -- endorsed a statement saying that modest raises in the minimum wage "can significantly improve the lives of low-income workers and their families, without the adverse effects critics have claimed.

Other members of our do-nothing Congress may have been unaware of the direct economic benefits of increasing the minimum wage. It pushes up the buying power of low-wage workers, allowing them to contribute more to the economy, to their communities and to state, local and federal tax coffers. Conversely, freezing the minimum wage fuels a vicious cycle as low-wage workers fall further and further behind, increasing the chasm between them and other workers and making them more dependent on taxpayer subsidized services.

Every day in our country, low-wage workers such as security guards, nursing home and daycare employees, teaching assistants, clerical assistants and food service workers make our lives safer, ease. Yet we fail to pay them enough to support their families. That isn't the way America is supposed to work. And that's why so many voters have grown tired of waiting for our federal government to act and are supporting the state minimum wage initiatives our organizations and our allies are fighting for at the grassroots.

By refusing to move on the minimum wage, our federal legislators missed a great opportunity to boost their own approval ratings, which, according to Gallup, are collectively at 29 percent and dangling. Meanwhile, citizens in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio are taking matters into their own hands and doing a big part of the job Congress refused to do.

Maude Hurd is National President of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the country's largest membership organization of low and moderate-income families. Stewart Acuff is organizing director of the AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing over 10 million workers.

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