Back when I started working (in 1964) the minimum wage was $1.25, a Hardee's hamburger was 15 cents, a gallon of gas 29 cents, a haircut was 75 cents, and you could get a meat and two in many restaurants for $1.50. Rent for an apartment was around $115 per month.
Today's minimum wage is $7.25. A plain-Jane Hardee's hamburger is $1.49, a gallon of gas is around $2.50, a senior citizen's discount haircut is $13.00 and a meat and two is gonna set you back at least 7 bucks. RENTCafe reports the average monthly apartment rent is $1,468. For some things the amounts are comparable to the minimum wage, but for many others you must work longer to pay for them.
Back in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt and congress established the first minimum wage at 25 cents an hour. FDR said that amount would ensure that a worker could earn a "living wage." From the beginning, the minimum wage was supposed to be a living wage.
What is a living wage today? In 2020 the Department of Health and Human Services calculated a living wage was $12.60 per hour for a full-time worker. The current $7.25 minimum hasn't been raised since 2009, resulting in a widening economic disparity between low, medium and high wage earners. No wonder 51 percent are in favor of raising the minimum wage.
As a small business owner for most of my life I traditionally opposed raising the minimum wage on the grounds that it would trigger cost increases across the board for everything. Now I'm changing my thinking for several reasons.
How does anyone work full time and live on $7.25 per hour? You can't. Workers must depend on food stamps, housing subsistence and other government benefit programs to get by. So instead of employers paying more, you and I, as taxpayers, do. And how can we maintain that increased minimum wages will force employers to cut back on fulltime workers in favor of increased automation and part-timers? That dog won't hunt! Employers are already doing this now with the $7.25 minimum.
Here's my spin. It is past time for us to increase the minimum wage in North Carolina. None of those who oppose raising it are making it. Let me say that again. Not one of those opposed to raising the minimum earn the minimum themselves. It they did, they would be screaming from the rooftops for a raise. I do believe raising the minimum to $15.00 in a single move is too steep a jump. But after 12 years with no increase, a bump to $12.60 per hour is justifiable, with indexing for inflation like we do with Social Security.
What do you think would happen if we did this? Despite the doom and gloom predictions, lower income people would have more money to spend. And they would. Our economy would grow. It's the rising tide lifting all boats truism. If businesses have increased revenues, they should have more to pay employees. It is highly doubtful raising the minimum will be the main reason many go out of business.
Helping the lower income sector should, in turn, help improve those in middle income positions. Who knows, maybe we will see fewer people on street corners begging. Maybe the crime rate will go down. Perhaps we might even see people treating each other with more respect. Maybe that's just starry-eyed dreaming, but what's the worst that could happen?
You can offer any argument you want, but the biggest reason for raising the minimum wage is that it's the right thing to do. And it is unconscionable we haven't done it before now.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 ½ years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.