Minimum Wage Increases Approved By Red State Voters — What Do Republicans Do Now?

Stories about the minimum wage have largely been missing from media radar in the days following the 2014 election. News and commentary shows have been abuzz about the Republican gains in congress, and elsewhere, but mostly missing from the conversation is this: voters in four “red” states told their state governments, “raise the minimum wage!”

Five states overall approved minimum wage increases, although the one passed by Illinois voters is non-binding. The other four states, Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, are solid red. All four of them sent Republican majorities to the House of Representatives. Arkansas and South Dakota replaced Democratic senators with Republicans. Out of the four, only Arkansas has voted Democratic for president in any election since 1964.

The votes in those states weren’t even close. The smallest margin of victory for a state minimum wage hike was in South Dakota, where the measure passed by a 55-45 percent margin. In Alaska, voters approved an increase by 69-31 percent. In addition, the measures approved in Alaska and South Dakota call for future increases to be automatic, and tied to the inflation rate.

According to the Huffington Post, the increases that were approved by voters are as follows:

  • Alaska — from $7.75 to $9.75 an hour by 2016. Future increases tied to the cost of living
  • Arkansas — minimum wage will increase by increments from $6.25 to $8.50 per hour by 2017
  • Nebraska — from $7.25 to $9.00 by 2016
  • South Dakota — from $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015, then indexed to inflation

Many of the same voters who decided to send Republicans to Washington also approved of increases in the minimum wage. Now Washington Republicans are faced with a dilemma. The GOP establishment in D.C. has long been opposed to minimum wage hikes, but various polls have found that an overwhelming majority of Americans think the minimum wage should be higher. Polls, such as the one conducted by CNN last summer, consistently find that around 70 percent of Americans want a higher minimum wage. How long can Republicans keep opposing an increase in the federal minimum wage before they face a revolt from red state voters at the ballot box?

Are voters becoming wise to Republican lies about the minimum wage?

Republicans consistently make two claims about the minimum wage that are easily disproven:

  1. Increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment, and hurts job creation.
  2. Most minimum wage workers are teens who are working their first job.

Looking at information from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the claim that increasing the minimum wage increases unemployment is questionable, at best. It would stand to reason that, if a higher minimum wage leads directly to higher unemployment, each minimum wage hike should be accompanied by an almost immediate, albeit small, spike in unemployment. Employers would immediately seek to reduce labor costs, likely starting with the workers who were suddenly costing them more. Those would be the workers who were at minimum wage.

Historical data shows that, from 1950 to 2009, unemployment remained steady or declined in each period immediately following a minimum wage increase, save those enacted between 1970 and 1975. During that time period, the country was dealing with an energy crisis, and a recession, both of which certainly affected employment numbers.

A February 2014 report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office offered some figures that were widely touted by Republicans. That report said that if the minimum wage was increased to $10.10 an hour, anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million jobs would be lost. If the wage was increased to $9.00 an hour, the range could be from a slight increase in jobs to a loss of 200,000 jobs. Republicans love to quote those numbers from the report, but what they don’t tell you is this: the report also says that anywhere from 7.6 to 16.5 million workers would see their pay increase. Depending on which raise was enacted (to $9.00 or $10.10), anywhere from 300,000 to 900,000 people would be lifted out of poverty.

The Republican claim about who works minimum wage jobs is also easily disproven. The BLS report, Characteristics of Minimum Wage Workers, 2013, shows that while only a small fraction of the American workforce earned minimum wage in 2013, nearly half of those whose pay was at or below minimum wage were at or above the age of 25. A related claim, that minimum wage workers are less educated than average is also false. The BLS report says that in 2013, 34.3 percent of minimum wage workers had attended college. 7.9 percent had bachelor’s degrees or higher.

What are Republicans to do, now that even Republican voters are starting to abandon the GOP position on increasing the minimum wage? It appears that they may be forced to modify their stance, or maintain it at their electoral peril. Some have already seen the light, or so they say. In Illinois, where a non-binding minimum wage increase was passed, Republican governor-elect Bruce Rauner told reporters that he voted in favor of the increase. Will the message to increase the minimum wage be carried by newly elected Republicans from the heartland to Washington? Only time will tell.

[Photo courtesy of NationOfChange]
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