PHILADELPHIA ― The Democratic Party made history this month by calling for a $15 federal minimum wage in its official platform, handing a major win to the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and the labor union-led “Fight for $15” movement.
Several workers in South Philadelphia, not far from the Democratic National Convention, told The Huffington Post that a minimum wage hike can’t come soon enough.
The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, the same as the federal minimum wage. While many cities are free to raise the minimum wage higher than the state level, Pennsylvania law precludes cities from doing so.
Lauren Hockett, a college graduate with three young children, makes the minimum wage as a retail clerk. The current wage floor “sucks,” Hockett said. “It has to be at least between $10 and $12 ― that’s realistic for a minimum.”
The same phrase came up repeatedly in conversations with more than a dozen workers and retirees in South Philadelphia.
Dawn Carestio is a disabled senior living on a monthly Supplemental Security Income check of $700 a month, but she vividly remembers the challenges of working a minimum-wage job while raising two children.
“It sucks,” Carestio said. “You can’t live paycheck to paycheck sometimes.”
Bob Taylor, a men’s clothing store owner, also said simply that the “minimum wage in this town sucks.”
Hockett said that while higher-skilled workers should get higher pay, “$7.25 is impossible to live on.”
$7.25 is impossible to live on. Lauren Hockett, retail clerk
Hockett relies on Medicaid, government-subsidized child care and food stamps to take care of her children. By the middle of the month, she said, she must turn to food banks to supplement what food stamps provide.
Curtis Warrell, a marketing worker for a dental company, makes close to the minimum wage.
“It’s not enough. No matter what you do,” he said. “Everything is going up ― the price of gas, the price of living, even McDonald’s. But what is not going up is the minimum wage.”
Aside from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania is the only state in the Middle Atlantic or New England regions that has not raised its minimum wage above the federal level. Even in West Virginia, which borders the Keystone State to the south, the minimum wage rose to $8.75 in 2016.
Most importantly, $7.25 an hour is clearly less than it takes for Philadelphians to meet their basic needs.
A Philadelphian without dependents would need to earn $11.43 an hour to support herself, according to a “living wage” calculator developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Amy Glassmeier. And an adult with one child would need to earn $23.06 an hour to pay the bills, according to Glassmeier’s calculator.
While the state’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has called for a statewide minimum wage increase, it is currently a non-starter in the Republican-controlled state legislature.
That means that Hockett, Warrell and other Philadelphian low-wage workers will likely have to wait for federal action to get the relief they seek.
Warrell said a $15 minimum wage “would be great, because no matter where you go, there’s opportunity.”
“Thumbs up,” Carestio said of the Democrats’ official goal for the country.
“I would love that,” Taylor said, when asked about the $15 minimum in the Democrats’ platform. “But that’s Democrats ― that’s not Hillary.”
In fact, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, initially supported enacting a $12 federal minimum wage, claiming $15 would be too high for more rural parts of the country.
But in April, Clinton clarified that she would sign a bill making $15 the federal minimum, as long as the change were enacted gradually.
It’s not enough. No matter what you do. Curtis Warrell, marketing worker
The positive responses of Philadelphians to the proposal suggests it is a political winner. That could prove essential in a rust-belt swing state where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has vowed to give Clinton a run for her money.
Trump, who has previously suggested Americans earn too much, changed his tune this week, saying that the federal minimum should be at least $10 an hour.
Economists are divided about the potential impact of minimum wage increases on jobs, with conservative experts typically arguing that it forces employers to lay off workers or just hire fewer people. But progressive economists believe that any burden from the higher cost of labor is usually offset by an uptick in demand thanks to the additional disposable income workers enjoy.
Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, a progressive Pennsylvania-focused think tank, estimates that if implemented gradually, a $15 minimum wage would have little net impact on jobs in Philadelphia.
Done that way, an increase to $15, “would boost the wages of hundreds of thousands of workers, which would in turn boost the region’s economy,” according to Price.
Still, some Philadelphians are skeptical that such a sizable minimum wage hike would not have any accompanying drawbacks.
Hassan Bradley is in between jobs, but he recently earned the minimum wage working at a pizzeria in South Philadelphia. It was a struggle to provide for his son and mother who rely on him to provide for them.
Bradley said a $15 minimum wage would be “great.”
“I also think about, if they’re raising that, what are they lowering?” he wondered. “If they have enough to give me $15 an hour, then what programs or institutions or anything are they cutting?”