When Patricia Stephens led a group of black college students to sit and order food at a “white only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida in 1960, they were told, “The South is not ready for that.”
When Fannie Lou Hamer led a group of black neighbors to the courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi in 1963 to register to vote, they were told, “Mississippi is not ready for that.”
When fast-food workers led primarily by black women walked off their jobs in 2012 to strike for a $15 minimum wage and a union, they were told, “America is not ready for that.”
Time and again, women of color have changed the world through their resilience and fortitude to never settle for less than first-class citizenship, even if the forces against them said it’s not yet time for progress.
The time has come for a minimum wage that meets the basic needs of workers in the 21st century. Raising the minimum wage would boost pay in low-wage jobs where millions of men and women now spend their careers. Low-wage occupations in food service, home health care, retail, and customer service are projected to see the most job growth over the next decade.
Which begs the question: What happens to a society where growing numbers of people cannot make ends meet? Families fall apart. Children are neglected. Parents do whatever it takes to put food on the table. Women are left to bear the brunt of raising families—alone.
The typical worker struggling on less than $15 an hour is a woman over 30 who works full-time but still cannot make ends meet. While only one-third of white workers earn less than $15 an hour, most women of color do.
With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour (amounting to just $15,080 annually before taxes), hard-working, single women of color are thrust into poverty regardless of how much effort they put into their jobs each day.
Such low wages also place an undue burden on children of color, many of whom must work low-paying jobs during their teenage years to supplement their household income. This contributes to the widening wage gap between black and white workers.
Gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 is part of the solution to restoring dignity for low-wage workers and fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, while advocating for sanitation workers, who suffered racial injustice and low wages.
“All labor has dignity,” Dr. King exclaimed in his speech in Memphis.
A $15 minimum wage (or $31,200 a year for full time) could go far in helping women and people of color make ends meet, closing persistent gender- and race-based pay and wealth gaps, and improving educational and health outcomes for children. All labor has dignity, but when workers bring home paychecks that don’t pay for basic necessities, it’s hard to find the dignity in being working poor.
Some claim that a $15 minimum wage would hurt communities of color by causing business owners to cut jobs. But the most sophisticated research shows that while it increases costs for businesses, it also generates billions in new consumer spending that offsets much of the higher cost. Plus, better-paid workers are happier, more reliable, and stay in their jobs longer.
Bill Phelps, CEO of Wetzel’s Pretzels, understands; minimum wage increases boosted his sales. So does Troy Alstead, chief operating officer of Starbucks, who stated that “new rates will ensure we are paying a competition wage that better positions us to attract and keep the best partners.”
So when it comes to gradually raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, there’s more at stake than just an increase in take-home pay. Restoring dignity to low-wage workers is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty and allowing workers to live healthier, more productive lives.
If we are to remain true to Dr. King’s dream for working people, we must follow in the footsteps of our freedom fighters by not settling for less. As a black man, I’m ready to follow. I’ll follow the courageous black women who are refusing to sit idly by while the dignity of our breadwinners dissipates as quickly as their earnings after paying their bills.