Congressional Democrats will try again to give the nation's lowest-paid workers a raise, their first in nearly nine years. Increasing the federal minimum wage beyond the current $3.35-an-hour has proven a difficult task because of strong opposition from business interests and a majority of Republicans. Democrats have accepted the fact that the only chance of getting an increase in the rate is a compromise that President Bush can live with. They are putting one together.
The President in June vetoed legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-L.A.) that would have raised the hourly rate to $4.55 over three years. He argued that the increase was excessive and inflationary and would cost thousands ofjobs. Bush, who during the 1988 campaign promised to raise the minimum wage, indicated he was willing to approve a more modest boost, to $4.25 an hour, but only if the legislation includeda lower sub-minimum training wage for new workers.
Compromise legislation, introduced by Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.), would raise the minimum wage to $4.25 as Bush has insisted upon. The increase--only 90 cents an hour--would bespread over two rather than three years. The sub-minimum would last for 60 days. At thispoint, it offers the best chance for the working poor.
The modest raise would boost a weekly salary based on the federal minimum wage from $134 to $170. That's not much, and it won't make up for the losses in buying power due to inflation over the years. But a small raise is better than none.
An estimated 5.4 million Americans earn the minimum wage. Their ranks include many teen-agers and new workers, but at least half are older than 25, and many are working parents who could bring more money into the house with a welfare check. For a parent with two children, welfare and related benefits are worth more than a pay check based on the federal minimum wage in 23 states, according to Isabel V. Sawhill, an economist at the Urban Institute. Yet thousands of poor Americans choose to work for less. They deserve more.
President Bush can encourage Americans who are willing to work. He can help working mothers who are trying to help themselves. He can help working fathers who are taking responsibility for their families. A compromise on the minimum wage is the best hope of achieving those goals.