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What Raising Minimum Wage Means for Racial Justice

NYC Rally to Raise the Minimum Wage, Herald Square, Manhattan
NYC Rally to Raise the Minimum Wage, Herald Square, Manhattan
Nirali Beri,
Legal Assistant,
ACLU, Racial Justice Project
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May 1, 2014

Yesterday the Fair Minimum Wage Act, legislation that would have raised federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, was blocked by a Republican-led filibuster in the U.S. Senate. While many are focused on the partisan politicking surrounding this bill, more attention must be given to the grave impact low wages have on communities of color.

First and foremost, it is important to juxtapose today’s cost of living with the salary of a full-time minimum wage earner.

A person working full-time under the current federal standard of minimum wage makes $15,080 a year, a number that is $4000 below the federal poverty line for a family of three, and fails to meet the estimated cost of living for one individual in most states. For example, a minimum wage earner in Indianapolis, Indiana, one of 21 states that maintain the federal minimum wage, makes $3,119 short of sustaining oneself, and $20,148 short of sustaining a family of three. (Take a look here and see if you could live on minimum wage in your state.)

The current minimum wage is inadequate, that much is clear. But, by looking beyond the impact of our federal minimum wage on individuals and their families, we see that the wage standard also has systemic consequences, most notably its disproportionate effect on people of color. For instance, African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics constitute 42 percent of minimum wage workers, while representing only 32 percent of the U.S. workforce.

By earning dismal minimum wage salaries in higher numbers, communities of color continue to be cut out of fundamental opportunities for equality. People of color make up a majority of those living below the poverty level, while the median wealth of white households remains twenty times that of Black homes and 18 times that of Hispanic homes.

This severe wealth inequality directly limits minority access to quality education, transportation and affordable housing, while perpetuating the disproportionately high number of people of color involved in the criminal justice system.

While the ACLU Racial Justice Program continues to work toward improving the many economic injustices people of color face — by holding Morgan Stanley accountable for orchestrating predatory loans prior to the 2008 financial crisis and investigating debtors prisons that have led to the incarceration of poor people unable to pay criminal justice debts — a federal minimum wage raise by Congress has the potential to lessen racial wealth inequality as a whole.

Structures of racial oppression and inequality share a long and troubling history in the U.S. However, raising the federal minimum wage, an effort that would lift six million workers above the federal poverty line — 60 percent of whom are people of color — presents a powerful opportunity for the U.S. to take a step toward dismantling these structures and addressing the systemic inequality of opportunity faced by communities of color.

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