The Soapbox: My American Dream — A Minimum Wage That Allows Everyone to Prosper

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When I think of the American Dream, I don’t just see images of white picket fences and fathers kissing their children before they leave for work.

I see an African-American mother of two dropping her children off at school and driving to her place of employment with the confidence that she’ll have enough gas to get to work and enough food to cook dinner. I imagine a Latina mother able to save enough money to help her son go to the college of his choice regardless of the rising cost of tuition. I see an America where working 40 hours a week allows women of all backgrounds the opportunity to gain prosperity and success. But how can anyone achieve such a dream on $7.25 an hour? They can’t.

We need to raise the minimum wage to at least $10.10 to help hardworking families who are struggling to scrape by. In tough economic times, there are few policies that could have as immediate, and as dramatic, of a boost for American workers, particularly for women of color.

This is why I’m angry at Senate Republicans for using the filibuster this week to block a minimum wage vote. Callously, they gave a cold shoulder to the millions of hardworking families who work full time but live in poverty. Even worse, their indifference is being outdone by House Republicans, who are refusing to spare a moment of attention for those who live below the poverty line.

This issue is too important to let fizzle or be defeated by typical Washington D.C. partisan politics. Democrats in the Senate must schedule more votes to increase the minimum wage and Democrats in the House must raise their voices even louder. But if Republicans are not going to help working families, Americans — particularly women of color — need to wake up and make their voices heard.

Why women of color? Let me throw some facts at you:

1. Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. Nearly three in 10 female minimum wage workers are women of color.

2. If the minimum wage was raised to $10.10 as President Obama and Senate Democrats are proposing, 25 to 28 million workers (PDF) would get a raise! About 55 percent of them — more than 15 million people —are women.

3. For every dollar men are paid, women receive just 77 cents. Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexing it to inflation would close roughly 5 percent of the gender wage gap (PDF) .

Here is reality: many minimum wage workers are breadwinners for their families and 55 percent work full time (PDF). The median age of an affected worker is 34 years old. More than 2.2 million single moms (PDF) would benefit from a minimum wage increase and 31 percent of affected women have children.

Not only could a higher minimum wage help achieve equal pay, but it would give 14 million children more to eat (PDF).

American productivity has skyrocketed. If the minimum wage were tied to productivity, it would be $21.72. Instead, the federal wage is a lowly $7.25. And that doesn’t apply to tipped workers or someone with a disability or someone who works in an exempt industry.

This is a system that encourages poverty and it’s just wrong. No one should work full time but be unable to get by. So, remember, this debate in Congress is not a matter of abstract economics. It’s an example of how government can make an immediate impact helping millions of working families — our families.

We live in America, the country where we are taught any dream can come true. Where young Latinas can aspire to be Supreme Court Justices and young Black men can look to be the President of the United States. But that cannot happen if their parents are working low-paying jobs and unable to provide them with the resources they need to achieve those dreams.

Today, I am asking you to take action. Will you join me in applying pressure to our Senators and Representatives to ensure that our communities make a decent wage? Will you fight against the ones who vote against working families and call out the ones who won’t take a stand? The time is now to speak up for our American Dream, and to demand Congress give our families, children, and our future a fair shot.

Carmen Berkley is the Civil, Human and Woman’s Rights Director of the AFL-CIO. Follow her on Twitter.

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post and was reprinted with permission from the author. 

[Image of money via Shutterstock]

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