By Jean Quan, Mayor of Oakland
The middle class is not only an American creation, it is the backbone of our country and the greatest force for economic growth and prosperity in history. The middle class in America represents about half of the country’s population, but because wages have ground to a stagnant halt while the rich have become richer, our middle class is shrinking.< p>This lack of income opportunity is a growing problem, causing the American dream to exist out of the reach of millions of Americans. The fight for our American dream has come to focus in the battle for the minimum wage with this month’s filibuster in Congress of President Obama’s proposal to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10.
Income opportunity is not about punishing the successful for being successful. It is about making sure that the working poor have a fair chance to earn their way into the middle class. It is about making sure the middle class families have the opportunity to become global success stories in the 21st Century economy. A thriving middle class, with strong families, prosperous communities and growing incomes, is essential to America’s future and a growing economy.
We have work to do in America.
As the nation’s wealth is increasingly concentrated at the top, more and more Americans are falling out of the middle class into poverty. The growing disparity between the rich and the poor is now wider than ever, and reversing this trend will require a multi-faceted approach with both long and short-term solutions. In the long-term, education reform and greater access to health care will help the working poor earn their way into the middle class and the middle class earn their way to whatever opportunity they choose. In the short-term, the most effective solutions such as raising the minimum wage will immediately improve the economic health of working Americans and strengthen the middle class.
Then Senator Hillary Clinton said it well as an advocate for the middle class, taking action to raise the minimum wage, expand unemployment benefits and make real progress to improve the lives of everyday Americans, “With all due respect, it is not rich people who made America great. It is the vast American middle class. It is the upward mobility of people who thought they could do better than their parents.”
The fight for the minimum wage has been a long and continuing process. Throughout her Senate career, Hillary Clinton was a staunch supporter of increasing the minimum wage and voted repeatedly to raise it. She was an original cosponsor of the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which raised the minimum wage from $5.85 to $7.25. She also authored the Standing with Minimum Wage Act, which sought to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. After 2011, the act proposed to tie the minimum wage to congressional pay raises.
Unfortunately, Congress failed to pass this legislation, keeping the federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, where it still stands today. However, since it was last raised in 2009, the real value of the federal minimum wage has decreased more than 8% due to inflation. As a result, it no longer constitutes a livable wage – a full-time, minimum wage job pays just $14,500 a year, and according to the Economic Policy Institute, a full-time worker would realistically need to earn $11.06 an hour to keep a family of four out of poverty.
We all need to join the fight Hillary Clinton championed and raise the minimum wage to a living wage nationally. In my state and my city we are moving on local initiatives, but this a national issue.
Even with a higher minimum wage, people are inevitably going to fall on hard times through no fault of their own. That is why Senator Hillary Clinton fought to extend emergency unemployment benefits and continues the fight today recently using her voice to encourage Congress to renew the expired federal unemployment program.
Today, there are 2.1 million Americans who are considered long-term unemployed, meaning they have been out of work for so long that their state unemployment benefits have run out. Renewing the federal unemployment program will provide these people with a financial lifeline, a helping hand, at a time when they need it the most.
I agree with Hillary Clinton when she said increasing the minimum wage is “certainly an American issue and a human issue, but it is particularly a woman’s issue” and this is a way to help “empower women and girls. Many of the workers who will benefit are lower paid women service workers.
Income opportunity is vital to America’s future. More Americans are falling into poverty, we must fight for the shrinking middle class by fighting for a fair minimum wage and better economic opportunities for poor and working people. By protecting the American dream we will continue to make sure America grows and prospers for everyone. I am proud to join Hillary Clinton and the movement for a fair minimum wage.