A change is gonna come.
But as anyone who was involved in the civil rights movement understands, that change usually comes slowly.
By almost any measure, the United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We have BMWs and Rolexes and expensive clothes that make us the envy of most of the rest of the world. The standard of living is so high here that some people have said—with complete sincerity—that having a million dollars no longer qualifies a person as being “wealthy” here.
The rich are certainly getting richer. But what about our poor?
Since the 1980s, the income gap has been widening. A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that the incomes of the top-earning one percent of households increased by 275 percent, after taxes, between 1979 and 2007. The income for everybody else? It increased, certainly, but not by 275 percent -- or even a fraction of that. In 2012, the gap between the richest one percent and the remaining 99 percent was the widest it has been since the 1920s.
Today, 15 percent of Americans live in poverty. Costs for food and housing and other necessities like childcare are prohibitive for millions of American families. Across the country, the supply of affordable housing units available is about 4.6 million less than current demand. Someone working at the national minimum wage must work 104 hours per week—the equivalent of 2.6 full-time jobs—in order to afford the average two-bedroom apartment.
There has been a great deal of talk in the last year about raising the national minimum wage. More progressive states, with more progressive thinkers holding elected office, have managed to make positive changes. Vermont approved legislation that will raise the state's minimum wage to $10.50 per hour by 2018. Seattle lawmakers approved legislation that increases the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2021. There has been a push by Democrats in Congress to gradually increase the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.
Efforts to raise the minimum wage are met with the usual arguments: Raise the salaries of workers, and companies will be forced to lay off employees and raise prices. The unintended consequences of a wage hike will be job losses and a sluggish economy.
Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who helped that state increase its minimum wage, wrote in an op-ed that Franklin Roosevelt heard the same arguments when he signed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established a national minimum wage. The U.S. was working to get out of the grip of the Great Depression at the time.
Back then, Roosevelt was pushing for a 25-cent increase in the minimum wage. Critics argued that increasing the wage would jeopardize an already weak economy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
President Obama has argued that raising the minimum wage would help keep a generation of American children out of poverty. He noted that a family of four with at least one full-time worker would be above the threshold for poverty. Roosevelt argued against “starvation wages” as he got the national minimum wage increased.
There are all kinds of societal ills that go along with being raised in poverty. Children who are hungry don't do well in school. They are more likely to repeat a grade, need extra resources during their school careers, and are less likely to graduate. There's a strong connection between poverty and crime, too.
In the end, poverty affects all of us.
Polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage. Lawmakers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York are talking about increasing the minimum wage.
It might take some time, but change is going to come.