Clinton Should Fight Republicans on Minimum-Wage Hike

By Clarence Page Copyright Chicago Tribune | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 5, 1995 | Go to article overview

Clinton Should Fight Republicans on Minimum-Wage Hike


Clarence Page Copyright Chicago Tribune, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


President Bill Clinton gave short shrift to the minimum-wage issue in his otherwise lengthy State of the Union address. That was a mistake. Instead of dodging a battle with Republicans over this issue, he should welcome it. Let Republicans try to explain why they're doing a favor to the working poor by keeping their wages low.

Although Clinton did not mention an amount, administration sources say he would like to raise the minimum wage to $5 an hour from the current $4.25. That, in inflation-adjusted dollars, would be far less than the $6.38 it was worth in comparable buying power in the mid-'60s, or even the $6 it was worth as recently as 1978. But at least it's a start.

Even so, Republicans hate it. Higher wages reduce numbers for jobs, they say. If House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, had his way, he says, there would be no minimum wage. Instead, wages would go up and down with the job market.

Comedian Mort Sahl once compared Ronald Reagan's approach to social policy to a man who, seeing you drowning 15 feet from shore, would throw you a 10-foot rope, then ask you to be grateful that he was meeting you more than halfway.

By that standard, Armey would not even throw you a rope. Instead, the former college professor would give you a lecture on how he can't help you because someone else might slip into the water.

But Armey is not heartless. He suggests replacing minimum-wage laws with direct government subsidies to workers, perhaps through an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, to bring the workers' income up to the equivalent of a minimum wage without penalizing employers.

But where will budget-slashing Republicans find the money to pay for such a costly subsidy? Armey does not say. Perhaps he does not know.

Ever since Congress established a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour in 1938, most Americans have supported the idea of a minimum decent income floor for working Americans. Few politicians would have dared call it "class warfare" the way today's Republican majority castigates it.

Armey opposes it because he thinks it's a job killer, a standard Economics 101 orthodoxy that is rapidly losing strength in the face of new studies. One study, co-authored by Alan Krueger, now the Labor Department's chief economist, and Princeton's David Card, found the number of low-wage jobs in New Jersey's fast-food restaurants actually went up when the state raised its minimum wage. …

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