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14 years ago the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour. It hasn't changed


Fourteen years ago this month, the federal minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour, and it hasn't gone up since. Thirty states have a higher minimum wage, but even that may not be enough to allow low-wage workers to build anything close to a comfortable life. Take this example of a fast-food worker in Oceanside, Calif.

SERGIO VALDERRAMA: My name is Sergio Valderrama (ph), and I worked for McDonald's for the last 12 years. And I get paid, today, 16.50 an hour. I did ask for a raise, but it was years back. They said there was not enough money because, you know, the stores were not doing very good. And they only give me, like, a 10 cents raise. And that's been the only raise they gave me in the last 12 years that I worked there. That is coming from me asking them. It's kind of tough, you know, because even though we - I make 16.50 an hour there, which is, you know, a little bit above, you know, the $15 minimum wage thing in California, things keep going up. You know, the prices are going up. I have my wife and my two kids. My wife's name's Elsa (ph), and my son's named Junior (ph). My daughter is Bianca (ph). And my son is going to turn 20 this year, and he's studying right now at college. My daughter, well, she's only 14. She'll be 15 at the end of the year, and she's still going through school.

For almost the last 10 years, we've been living in a studio. We have the bedroom and the dining room and the kitchen table and everything almost in the same spot. So it's been kind of tough. You know, the way I see it, if I get paid more money I would be at least able to put some money aside for a rainy day or for a vacation, but I've probably taken three vacations in my entire life. To be honest with you, I think, you know, you know how they say not all the money in the world will make it better? Because I know we're not going to get a huge, you know, relief if we do get, you know, the wages to go up. But you know how they say, you know, every little bit counts.

MARTÍNEZ: One person who's campaigned for years to raise the federal minimum wage is the Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign.

WILLIAM BARBER II: We live in a time when poverty now is the fourth leading cause of death in this country, poverty - higher than homicide, higher than respiratory disease, higher than gun violence.

MARTÍNEZ: When we spoke, he began by highlighting a Senate vote two years ago that saw eight Democrats join 50 Republicans in voting down a bid to increase the nation's minimum wage to $15 an hour.

BARBER: It's been a bipartisan no. When Republicans have controlled the Congress on both sides of the aisle of the president, they've not done it. When Democrats have controlled, they've not done it. But the fact is, we were in the middle of COVID when we were declaring that workers were essential workers. A large majority of essential workers are low-wage workers, and the Congress people and everybody was saying how much we love them. But from fast food workers to even people in our police force to meatpackers were making less than a living wage.

MARTÍNEZ: What's the explanation that you've heard as to why this gap - 14 years - has happened?

BARBER: Well, I think there are four things. No. 1 is the lie that raising the minimum wage to a living wage would enhance inflation and raise prices, which has been debunked time and time again by economists. Secondly, this ongoing historical lie that poor and low-wage people are their own problem. It's their personal immorality rather than the immorality of society that doesn't provide a living wage. The third reason that we often hear is that $7.25 an hour puts you above the poverty level. Well, that's actually absurd. And then the last reason we end up not doing it is because rather than putting a face on who's actually being hurt by the lack of living wage, we get lost in these culture wars like fighting trans people or fighting immigrants, which is all a distraction because the extremists who push all of that stuff, what they don't want the public to know is that they are the very ones also blocking living wages and health care.

MARTÍNEZ: Reverend, 30 states have a minimum wage higher than the federal level. So how much of a big issue is it nationally?

BARBER: Well, just because it's above 7.25 or 8 or 9, it's still not a living wage. Actually, the living wage should be somewhere near $20 an hour. That's why, when I hit the road with Bernie Sanders a few - we are talking about it. Now we need at least a $17 minimum wage. We're talking about a living wage so somebody can eat meat twice a week and have a basic used car and afford a basic apartment. There's not a county in this country where a person working at 7.25 can afford a basic two-room apartment in America, the wealthiest nation in the world.

MARTÍNEZ: Reverend, why shouldn't states have different minimum wages considering that states have very different economies? So California, which is at 15.50 per hour, is one of the largest economies in the world, much different than, say, Alabama, that's at 7.25.

BARBER: We need a federal response for all people. That's one we put in place in 1938 at the - we need a minimum wage. And then states can go up beyond that based on some of the particularities around that state. But the minimum should not be less than 15 or $17 across the board. What we're saying is this country should say, morally and politically, at a minimum, we're not going to have a country where people can work every day of their lives and not be able to afford the basic necessities of life.

MARTÍNEZ: You travel around the country trying to promote a higher minimum wage. So what is it about this that's made it such a part of your life?

BARBER: I was a pastor for 40 years, almost - 30 years at one church. When people die because they don't have health care, I had to bury them. When people are stressed out and die, stroke out because they working so hard, I had to bury them. And I could not stand up in that pulpit and say, God called them home, and this was a natural death. This is policy murder. I've had to watch families be torn apart because they couldn't - they never were home with each other 'cause they were trying to do everything they could. And they are just living in so much anger because they would see these politicians getting all this money and all these CEOs getting this money, and all they wanted - all they wanted was a living wage, that's all. They just wanted the basics of life.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Reverend William Barber, founder of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale University and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. Thank you very much.

BARBER: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR MCFERRIN'S "POSTPARTUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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