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USA Today, August 1, 2008: Opinion: Minimum-wage rise helps, but just a little

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More than 2 million workers had good economic news last week. When the federal minimum wage rose to $6.55 from $5.85, they received a 12% raise. A minimum-wage worker who is employed full-time earns $13,624 a year, just a bit less than the 2007 poverty line for a two-person family and significantly less than the $17,170 poverty line for a family of three. So is that good news?

Thanks to 2007 legislation, the minimum wage will rise to $7.25 a year from now, but even with this jump, pay isn’t keeping up with inflation. Indeed the current minimum wage is 19% lower (in constant dollars) than it was in 1979. With food prices already up 5% since June of last year, and with energy costs up 25%, the raise helps those at the bottom, but just a little bit.

In the past, minimum wage was often associated with teens who don’t”need” a living wage. But the majority who benefit from minimum wagesnow are adults working full time; more than half are adult women.

Twenty-three states understand that people who work full timeshouldn’t earn less than the poverty line. In California, Massachusettsand Washington, the minimum wage is $8 or more an hour. And in 10 states,the minimum wage is adjusted annually for inflation. If the federalminimum wage were adjusted for inflation, it would be about $9 an hour today.

Congress was wise to raise minimum wages after a full 10 years in 2007. But it has unfinished business: More than 36 million Americans live in povertyand face hunger. The challenges poor people face when the economy isstable are multiplied when it goes bust with fewer jobs and higherpriced goods and services.

What must be done? The federal food stamp program provides relief for some poor people, but it doesn’t reach everyone. The earned income tax creditreduces taxes and may even offer refunds for low-wage workers. Yet manyof those who qualify don’t use it because they don’t have theinformation.

Other federal and state programs aim to reducepoverty, but what is clearly lacking is moral outrage about thepersistence of poverty. Though the minimum wage increase doesn’t solvethis problem, it’s a baby step in the right direction.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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