While Senators sat as jurors in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial last week, House committees were busy drafting the details of President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package, which includes legislation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters on a break from the trial that, while he favors raising the minimum wage, he thinks $15 an hour for a state like his is too high. But low-wage workers in West Virginia insist Senator Manchin is out of touch with the 62 million poor and low income Americans across the nation who would benefit from a $15 minimum wage, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute.
People who have struggled to survive on West Virginia’s minimum wage of $8.75 an hour make a compelling case that $15 an hour now is what we need to rebuild an economy that works for all Americans.
“If we are going to be a society that insists we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, then we can’t refuse to give people the bootstraps they need to pull themselves up,” Amy Jo Hutchison of West Virginia said at a Moral Monday rally organized by the Poor People’s Campaign this week.
While Manchin suggests that people in states like West Virginia don’t need $15 an hour to get by, 352,000 workers—a full half of his state’s workforce—currently earn less than $15 an hour. It is no accident that almost as many West Virginians (326,000) are currently enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). People like Hutchison know well how low-wage childcare workers, home health aids and food service workers have been stigmatized by their reliance on government assistance while they have worked more than full-time, often picking up extra shifts or a second job to pay the bills at home. As Hutchison says, low wage workers are “ensnared” in the social safety-net by government policies that allow corporations to exploit their labor.
Over the past half a century, wage growth stagnated as the nation’s gross domestic product grew, increasingly shifting a greater share of the economy’s wealth from workers to owners. At the same time, pro-growth politicians lowered corporate taxes and marginal tax rates for the owner class on the theory that owners would create more and better jobs if they kept more of their profits.
But businesses in places like West Virginia have not kept up their end of the deal. While they have paid less and less in taxes, federal and state governments have increasingly subsidized their low wages through SNAP, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and other social safety net programs.
When poor workers like Hutchison point out the lie of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative that blames poor people for their poverty, they are not asking for a handout from Manchin. They are, instead, insisting that he and his colleagues on Capitol Hill stop giving handouts to their bosses while they blame workers for their struggles.
Low-wage service workers who have worked on the frontlines during the pandemic have borne the brunt of its impact, both in terms of lost wages and lost lives. But the overwhelming majority of economic stimulus funds from the federal government last year went to corporations and banks, not poor and working people. For Manchin to suggest that the people hurting most in his home state don’t need a raise is an insult.
The irony of the debate in the U.S. Senate is that, while Democrats have the votes to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour through the budget reconciliation process, Democratic Senators like Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema have suggested they are not sure whether a $15 minimum wage has a direct impact on the federal budget—a procedural requirement that one of Manchin’s predecessors, Sen. Robert Byrd, guaranteed in a Senate rule that still bears his name.
But nothing makes the minimum wage’s impact on the federal budget clearer than Hutchison’s insistence that her Senator stop subsidizing corporations and pay their workers enough to survive. If 27 million workers get a raise, as the CBO’s report says they would, the increased revenue from federal income taxes alone has a direct impact on the federal budget.
Manchin may not have been persuaded yet by workers in his on home state who are crying out for a $15 minimum wage in this nation. But as preachers we hear in Hutchison’s challenge a call that echoes the prophets of scripture. The Bible says in Isaiah 58:6 that God requires justice for workers who are not paid enough to sustain themselves and their families:
“This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.”
The biblical prophet says that bold policy to address injustice is not only about doing right by people like Hutchison. It is also the only way a nation can truly heal. If we heed the cries of low-wage workers in the midst of this pandemic, we have the opportunity to reconstruct an economy that has accepted extreme inequality and unnecessary suffering for far too long.
This suffering has made places like West Virginia vulnerable to the manipulation of fake populists like Donald Trump who promised poor white workers that he would put “America First” while stoking divisions to pit Americans against one another along with signing legislation that benefited the wealthiest among us.
We understand Manchin’s fears. A state that Trump won in 2016 and 2020 could quickly reject him if he is perceived as being too “liberal.” But just wages are not a liberal or conservative issue. Honest pay for honest work and honoring the biblical admonition to pay workers what they deserve are a moral obligation for all who would work to heal the nation in this perilous moment.
If Manchin stands with low-wage workers, he does not stand alone. He stands in the moral center of our biblical and Constitutional traditions, and he stands with women like Hutchison who are showing us the nation we must become.