As President Biden approaches his first 100 days in office, one issue has reached a flashpoint in Congress: raising the minimum wage. As a candidate, Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better” included raising the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour, along with ending tipped minimum wages and sub-minimum wages for workers with disabilities. As Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package heads for his signature this week–woefully without an increase in the minimum wage–Democrats and progressive groups are keeping the fight for a $15 federal minimum wage alive.
The federal minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 an hour since 2009, and is still the minimum wage in 21 states. Forty-two percent of workers in the US make less than $15 an hour, with women, people of color, and LGBTQ people disproportionately among those low-wage workers. Minimum wage jobs are also becoming more common. The Job Quality Index which measures the ratio between high- and low-wage jobs in the private sector shows that the growth of minimum wage jobs is outpacing growth for higher-paying jobs.
Where the Fight Began
The trend of stagnant wages began long before 2009. In Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris details the history between wage equality and productivity in the US. Until the mid-1970s, hourly compensation and worker productivity moved together, doubling roughly every 20 years. However, as productivity soared in the 1980s and beyond, average hourly wages remained the same. Harris explains that this divergence has resulted in “surplus value,” where workers produce beyond what they are financially compensated for.
The “Fight for $15” started in 2012 when fast-food workers in New York walked out and demanded fair pay and unionization rights. The movement has since expanded in size and to include many professions. All across the United States, healthcare workers, graduate students, and teachers have joined the fight for a livable wage. Fight for $15 and other progressive organizations have successfully pushed legislators in several states to adopt minimum wage laws with gradual increases to $15.
A $15 federal minimum wage would increase pay for 32 million workers across the country, would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty, and would particularly improve the lives of women, communities of color, and LGBTQ people. Data from the US Census shows that Native American, Black, and Hispanic communities have the highest rates of poverty in the country. The minimum wage bill would also be a huge safety net for essential workers, who often work at minimum wage positions. Several companies ended hazard pay three months into the pandemic, while others refused to raise wages for frontline workers. According to the Economic Policy Institute, people of color comprise the majority of food, agricultural, and industrial essential workers. It is clear that raising the wage would have profound positive effects for many, and especially for those who are a member of one or more marginalized group, including LGBTQ people.
What $15 Would Mean for LGBTQ Communities
The $15 minimum wage proposal would be a critical first step in closing income and wealth gaps for LGBTQ individuals. Gay men make between 10% and 32% less than straight men, lesbians make 11% less than straight women, and trans people are 4x more likely to make less than $10,000 a year than the general population. Additional factors such as higher student loan burdens, high prescription drug costs, and employment discrimination all play a part in anchoring LGBTQ communities to poverty.
As a result of discriminatory gaps for LGBTQ communities, one-in-five LGBTQ people live in poverty. LB women have even higher poverty rates than GB men, and trans women have the highest poverty rate among LGBTQ people at 29.4%. Black and Hispanic adults in the LGBTQ community are hit: 37% of Hispanic LGBTQ adults and 30% of Black LGBTQ adults live in poverty. And already vulnerable LGBTQ households have suffered disproportionate economic effects during the pandemic. The Movement Advancement Project reports that over half of LGBTQ people reported they had their wages or hours reduced or were forced to take unpaid leave because of the pandemic. Two-thirds reported experiencing one or more serious financial problems since the start of the pandemic.
Raising the minimum wage would significantly help LGBTQ adults recover from the effects of the pandemic to create financial security for themselves and their families and fight poverty in the LGBTQ community. The Williams Institute reports that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would lift over 30,000 people in same-sex couples out of poverty, and 1.45 million LGBTQ adults would see wage increases from a $15 minimum wage law. The effects of a $15 minimum wage would also extend beyond those working minimum wage jobs. Of that 1.45 million, 37% of LGBTQ adults already earning more than $15 would also see an increase in their wages.
The Fight Continues
It is time to raise the minimum wage. For the 1.8 million people that earn at or below $7.25/hour, for tipped workers that earn a minimum wage of $2.13/hour, for those that have been locked into poverty by the inaction of the United States government and corporations, and for the communities that are excessively burdened by a $7.25 hourly wage.
We must raise the minimum wage. LGBTQ communities, communities of color, and women who make up a large portion of essential workers and families in poverty are struggling. A $15/hour minimum wage is a strong shift from the history of wage stagnation that will help uplift all communities and help reduce income and wealth gaps based on race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
The Center for LGBTQ Economic Advancement & Research stands in solidarity with millions of advocates and groups nationwide in the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15. Together we can and will win this fight for a more fair income for all Americans, including our family in the LGBTQ community.