Raise the federal minimum wage

With the recession technically having ended quite a while ago, it will strike many as surprising that Oregon’s poverty rate bucked national trends by rising from 13.5 percent to more than 15 percent in a Census Bureau report issued Tuesday.

In real life, such incremental changes near the bottom of the economic ladder mean little. Statistics ebb and flow. They do a poor job of showing what actual human beings are experiencing. Percentage points don’t suffer hunger or worry. Entrenched and intractable poverty and our seeming inability to do much about it is the bigger and badder story. A third of working families in the state don’t earn enough to consistently make ends meet.

Oregon Public Broadcasting is in the midst of an outstanding effort to put faces on otherwise anonymous poverty numbers. The stories OPB is broadcasting describe circumstances that will be all too familiar to Oregonians, particularly those of us who live in rural areas, where personal struggles are more easily observed than in the busy Willamette Valley and other pockets of wealth.

A hard-working woman in Malheur County told OPB about how the need to replace a flat tire was enough to put a strain on her household budget for two months. For too many families, keeping up with necessities like dental care or budgeting to replace an obsolete car is impossible. This degree of economic strain is entirely familiar to many Clatsop County residents.

At the same time, middle-income people also face a malaise. This is a nationwide complaint. As analyst Neil Irwin commented Tuesday, “The rubber-meets-road measure of whether the economy is working for the mass of Americans is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their pockets and what they can buy with that money. And the newest census numbers show that the nation experienced virtually no progress on that frontier in 2013, and remains far behind where we were seven years ago.”

What can be done? For the working poor, there is no doubt that raising the minimum wage would improve quality of life. A proposal to raise national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — a plan that is gaining little headway — is a dollar more than Oregon’s current rate. For a full-time worker, this increase would put roughly $125 more a month into a household budget — not much, but enough to buy a spare tire or perhaps a tooth filling. Merely to keep pace with inflation, the minimum wage should now be $10.86 a hour.

On the broader issue of middle-class income stagnation, progress depends on a shift away from current national policies that place a high priority on making the rich richer. Time-honored strategies like subsidizing college tuition, paid for by progressive taxes on the wealthy, can prime the pump for prosperity. This and many other sensible, proven policies implemented after World War II gave us the best standard of living in the world, something frittered away by Reagan-era mistakes.

It’s time for Americans to wake up and look out for our children’s best interests by giving everyone a fair shot at success.

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