Raising the Minimum Wage Would Boost Incomes for Wisconsin Workers earning Poverty-Level Wages

Monday, October 20, 2014 at 10:28 AM by

Poverty-wage work is widespread in Wisconsin, with 1 in 4 workers earning poverty-level wages, according to a new report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. Raising the minimum wage would give these workers a raise, provide a shot in the arm to the local economy, and help create a more inclusive version of economic prosperity.

There is a wealth of information about poverty-wage workers in Wisconsin in the COWS report, but one fact in particular stands out: The typical poverty-wage worker in Wisconsin is 30 years old. (The report defines poverty-wage work as work that pays $11.35 an hour or less, the amount needed to keep a family of four out of poverty with full-time, year-round work.)

Opponents of raising the minimum wage sometimes mischaracterize the issue as a disagreement about how much to pay teenage workers. In one of the gubernatorial debates, Governor Walker recalled working for minimum wage at McDonald’s, but said he knew he would be moving on to better-paying jobs. But with a median age of 30, it’s not just young, entry-level workers who are working for low wages in Wisconsin. Workers of all ages are trying to make ends meet and support their families while working at poverty-level wages.

How do we lift the wages of those earning the least? Raising education levels isn’t enough, according to COWS:

“Four out of five poverty-wage workers in Wisconsin have completed high school; almost half have some college experience. So while it is true that greater levels of education lead, in general, to higher wages, many workers toil in poverty-wage jobs despite years of education or even college degrees. And while our workforce is substantially more educated today than it was thirty-five years ago, the chance of working in a poverty-wage job has not changed, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen, and, controlling for inflation, median wages are just barely creeping forward.”

The best way to raise the income of workers earning poverty wages is to raise the minimum wage – something 13 states did at the beginning of 2014. The states that raised the minimum wage have experienced job growth since then that is equal or better to the states that did not raise the minimum, showing that raising the wage floor can help build a stronger economy at the same time that it helps low-wage workers.

Raising the minimum wage has widespread public support in Wisconsin. More than 6 out of 10 Wisconsin voters support raising the minimum, according to a recent poll from Marquette University. The last increase in the minimum wage was five years ago, and the time is long past due for another increase.

You can find the COWS report here: “Raise the Floor Wisconsin: Minimum Wage Edition.”

Tamarine Cornelius

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