The minimum wage is a moral issue masquerading as an economic one. Stone-cold capitalism does not demand a minimum wage, any more than it demands child labor laws or workplace safety. Rather, we demand a minimum wage, due to the belief that there must be a floor on human dignity. The public debate on the issue should always happen on those terms, lest we allow it to slide into the insincere wasteland of “What’s best for small business,” where all ideas good for working people go to die.

America’s federal minimum wage today sits at $7.25 an hour, unchanged since 2009. In that time we have been through an economic crash, a slow, decade-long recovery and another economic crash, and after all of that it is still legal to pay a full-time employee working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks less than $15,000 a year. Our nation’s billionaires have gained more than a trillion dollars in wealth in the past year, but there are full-time workers who have lived with the same poverty wage since before Barack Obama had any grey hair. Anyone who is not actively trying to raise the minimum wage is asserting that this sickening juxtaposition is OK. It’s not.

When the Fight For $15 movement began demanding “$15 and a union” for fast food workers in 2012, it was viewed by even those sympathetic to it as a bit of a pipe dream. Now, as Democrats in Congress work to include a national $15 minimum wage in the pending coronavirus relief bill, that movement’s goals are closer to becoming a reality than they have ever been. Of course, that is not a completely happy story – one reason the number sounds more realistic today is because $15 is not worth what it was in 2012. If you want to grasp how hard the Fight For $15 has been, consider the case of Terrence Wise, its single most famous rank and file leader. He has been profiled in countless media outlets. He has traveled the country for marches and rallies. He has even visited the White House to appear with President Obama. And after all of that, he makes $14 an hour working at McDonald’s. If his movement succeeds, he is still in line for a raise.

Even if the Democrats succeed on this issue, either in the relief bill or with the standalone “Raise the Wage Act” that has also been introduced in Congress, it could take until 2025 before the $15 minimum wage is fully phased in. Meanwhile, we know that if the minimum wage had kept up with rising worker productivity over the past 50 years, it would be more than $24 an hour today. A victory will not really be a victory. It just puts us less far behind.

To the extent that there is any genuine opposition to raising the minimum wage on economic grounds – rather than on the pure winner-take-all greed of the investor class, which is in fact what drives the vast majority of opposition to working people making more money – it is misplaced. Mainstream economists now recognize that raising the minimum wage does not in fact have the automatic job-destroying effect that Econ 101 textbooks assumed. Its biggest effect is making it slightly less miserable to be someone who works a job that society has deemed to be both wholly necessary and also unworthy of respect.

It is really not that hard to understand why America has a class war. It is because the rich have chosen it. The rest of us, and in particular the poor, are just being swept along in the storm. No issue crystallizes the many lies behind the class war like minimum wage. It affects not some mythical lazy people without the drive to succeed, but rather the people who work harder than anyone, in the jobs that nobody else wants, but which we all know must get done. There is not a billionaire in the world who works as hard as a full-time fast food worker. The morality tale at the heart of the minimum wage debate is not about a benevolent society deciding how much of a kindly helping hand it will extend to those at the bottom of the economic ladder; it is actually about a merciless, cutthroat society arranged to funnel wealth upwards deciding how far down it can press the weakest parts of the labor force before they break. One thing that all opponents of a higher minimum wage have in common is that they would never dream of valuing their own time as cheaply as they think millions of other, lesser people should be forced to.

Democrats must force the $15 wage through Congress while they control it, even if that means they all have to gang up on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in the lunchroom. But even more important, they have to recognize that they have a lot of catching up to do. What morality really demands is not a minimum wage, but a living wage. The Fight For $25 begins on the day after the current battle is won.



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