Louisiana should raise the minimum wage

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that things have been getting more expensive (the notable exception, of course, being gasoline). If you live in New Orleans or another larger city, like I do, you may have found your rent going up over the past few years.

For some of us, this is a bit of a frustration; others may have to budget a few nicer things out of their lives. Still some others, who make lower wages, are forced to make the unthinkable decision – do I pay my electricity bill or pay for my medication? Do I sell my car? Do I move my children into a neighborhood that is further away from their school, one that puts them at a risk of dying by a stray bullet?

These are some of the decisions that those making minimum wage often have to consider. As 29 other states plus the District of Columbia have raised their minimum wage beyond the paltry $7.25 an hour, Louisiana is one of five states that still lacks any minimum wage law. (Two other states have a minimum wage lower than the federal, which means that employers still must pay the federal minimum wage, and the other fourteen have a minimum wage equal to the federal minimum wage. 

Governor John Bel Edwards proposed, in his campaign, a modest minimum wage increase to $8.50 an hour. This is a policy change desperately needed in Louisiana. It may even be more needed here than in the 21 other states who haven’t raised their minimum wages.

According to the United States Census Bureau, Louisiana had the third highest poverty rate in the country in 2014, just lower than Mississippi and the District of Columbia; we fell there from the seventh highest spot in 2010. Furthermore, Louisiana has a far greater cost of living than Mississippi. In fact, Louisiana is ranked about 30th in the country for cost of living (or 31st, depending on the study), while Mississippi has the lowest cost of living. Many of the states that rival Louisiana in cost of living have higher minimum wages, including Illinois (28th lowest), West Virginia (26th lowest), and Florida (24th lowest). We can do better.

And this does not take into consideration the higher cost of living in cities like New Orleans and the fact that prices usually naturally inflate each year. Without a cost of living adjustment on the minimum wage (which Louisiana and many other states lack), the real value of that wage actually shrinks every year.

Meanwhile, Birmingham, Alabama just recently became the first state in the Deep South to pass a higher local minimum wage. In fact, the City of New Orleans, after a ballot measure receiving 63 percent of the vote in 2002, enacted a general minimum wage that would have been $1 higher than the federal minimum, but it was struck down by the Louisiana Supreme Court, after business groups rallied against it as unconstitutional.

Twelve states, including Louisiana, since then have adopted “preemption laws” that expressly prohibit cities from raising their minimum wages higher than that of the state; that law was signed by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2012. These laws come from the model legislation pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—a right-wing group run by industry leaders that pushes conservative, pro-business legislation onto the state law books. But why shouldn’t localities get to adjust their wage, when it is so obvious that some cities are far more costly to live in than the rest of the state?

There are a lot of unsupported claims floating about the internet about the minimum wage, and I’m not an economist; amidst the myriad websites arguing for one side or another, it can be hard to discern the truth. So here are some minimum wage myths and facts, issued by none other than your federal government:

  • Q: “Won’t minimum wage hurt employment?”
  • A: Actually, independent economists (600 of them, including 7 Nobel Peace Prize winners) across the country have shown “little to no” negative effect on employment by increasing the minimum wage. They actually found that it could have a stimulative effect on the economy by reducing turnover, which lowers costs for training and hiring.
  • Q: “But what about small businesses?”
  • A: Three out of five small business owners actually support a gradual raise of the minimum wage to $12. They say it would boost local spending which would in turn stimulate the economy.
  • Q: “Why should we pay high schoolers that kind of money?”
  • A: For the most part, they aren’t high schoolers – they are adults, trying to support their families. Eighty-nine percent of the beneficiaries from a federal minimum wage increase are over 20 years old; fifty-six percent are women.

Something else I’ve heard argued goes along these lines: Why should we encourage people to “be lazy” and work low-end jobs by raising the minimum wage?

They are working to provide for their families. If you want to make an argument about laziness, you might want to look somewhere other than a place of business. We don’t live in an economy where everyone can work their way up. A business necessarily has far more support staff than managers. Plus, part of the reason that people stay at the bottom is because the jobs simply don’t pay enough, which encourages turnover (see above). If you simply cannot financially support your family by “working your way up” from a low-paying job, which could take years, you have to look somewhere else.

Minimum wage workers make and serve our food, they clean our facilities, they stock our stores; they do important work. Individuals (and their families) do not deserve to live in poverty because they took a job we decided was less important.

Louisiana has a budget problem, as I’ve said before. It may get worse before it gets better. We want to encourage citizens to get an education and skills so that they can earn higher wages, yet we are gutting the schools that provide these skills. We cannot have it both ways, or our people will fall further into poverty and despair.