After President Barack Obama’s executive action announcement on immigration, the political headlines have focused on how the Republican-led Congress will react on the issue. Lost in the large shadow of the immigration debate is whether the 2015 Congress will tackle other issues important to Latinos, especially minimum wage legislation.
Hispanics consistently prioritize government action on policies such as the economy, education and health care, as I show in my book Latinos in the Legislative Process. A large part of this agenda involves earning a livable wage. Despite the importance of livable wages to Latinos and other constituencies, the federal minimum wage has not increased since 2007. In fact, it has only been raised three times over the last thirty years. The probability that Congress would seriously consider raising the minimum wage was so low in 2014 that lobbyists on both sides of the issue gave it very little attention at the federal level.
Minimum wage is one of the few issues with bipartisan support in the electorate. A Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year found 90 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans favored raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Last month’s Latino Decisions Election Eve Poll showed 78 percent of Latino voters support raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Similarly, a July 2014 NCLR/LD poll found 55 percent of Latino voters would be more likely to support elected officials who vote to increase the minimum wage.
Wages and Latinos
Why is raising the minimum wage so important for Latinos? One essential reason is that Hispanics are more likely than both whites and blacks to earn poverty-level wages. In 2011, 43.3 percent of Latinos were employed in jobs earning poverty level wages (compared to 23.4 of whites and 36 percent of African Americans). The trend over the last forty years has seen the share of Latino workers earning poverty level wages remain stagnant, while the share has decreased for both whites and African Americans.
As illustrated above, hourly wages for Latinos have lagged behind their white and black counterparts in the workforce for decades (Economic Policy Institute, 2012). Between 2007-2011, the period generally covering the Great Recession, hourly wages for Latinos decreased by 3.7 percent, compared to a decrease of 2.8 percent for whites and 2.4 percent for African Americans. Because Latinos earn lower wages, it is no surprise that between 2007 and 2011, 23.2 percent of Latinos lived in poverty; almost ten percentage points higher than the national rate (Macartney et al. 2013).
Advocates of raising the minimum wage say it would help mitigate the sobering statistics mentioned above, and cite economists who challenge the belief that raising the minimum wage would hurt companies. It is estimated that 25% of the 30 million workers that would be directly impacted by a wage increase are Latino (Cooper and Hall, 2013), see Figure 2.
If the minimum wage is raised to $10.10 an hour (as it has been proposed), this means a total increase in wages of $8.5 billion in real dollars. Advocates also stress higher wages would make Latinos less dependent on social services, thus reducing government spending, which is a benefit to the broader economy.
Those who oppose setting a national wage floor, mainly corporations, pro-business groups and small business owners, contend that a higher minimum wage would force companies to cut low wage, entry-level jobs, which would in turn hinder economic growth. Many Republican legislators along with the party’s leadership share this view. GOP Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said that raising the federal minimum wage will no longer be considered if the GOP won the Senate—which they did. McConnell himself has voted 17 times against raising the minimum wage.
Still, there remain several prominent Republicans ̶ including Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder ̶ who support raising the minimum wage. Earlier this year Snyder signed legislation raising Michigan’s wage to $9.25 an hour. It is worth noting that Republicans in the Michigan state house argued this legislation was better than the possibility of voter-approved ballot initiatives that would raise hourly wages even higher.
Latinos and a majority of voters from both parties have clear preferences for wage increases, and they’ve acted on this preference too: voters in five states passed minimum wage increases in last month’s elections. Wage policy changes taking place now occur despite the work of Congress, not because of it. The question is whether the new Congress will heed voters and make livable wages an agenda priority in the near future.
A shorter version of this post was published on NBCNews.com
Stella Manrique Rouse is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics and Assistant Director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. Her book, Latinos in the Legislative Process: Interests and Influence (Cambridge University Press 2013) was named by Huffington Post as one of the best political science books of 2013. Follow her on Twitter @Stella_Rouse.