By Rev. Stephanie Coble Hankins

On top of all the problems working families face in this bleak economy, we can add one more: for the first time in three years the federal minimum wage won’t go up this summer.

From 2007 through 2009, the nation’s lowest paid workers received modest, yet long overdue increases in their paychecks each July. In 2007, Congress finally raised the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour, phased in over three years.

But this year, workers will get nothing. The federal minimum wage will once again be flat unless Congress takes action again.

Until 2007, the federal minimum wage had been stuck at $5.15 an hour for 10 years. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers like waitresses and car wash workers is even lower. It’s been frozen at a meager $2.13 an hour since 1991.

For the child care worker who watches your toddler and the waitress at your local diner, the minimum wage plays a big role in setting their pay scales. That’s why farsighted business leaders like Costco’s CEO Jim Sinegal have been supportive of raising the minimum wage to help America’s working families.

The faith community also supports raising the minimum wage. As an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I can think of few causes that the faith community should be more interested in than ensuring that the working poor in our own neighborhoods earn enough money to support their families.

This summer, the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition has trained college interns at DOOR Atlanta to teach over 200 high school students on mission trips to Atlanta about the struggle of Georgia’s minimum wage workers. Our goal is to help these students recognize that families can’t make ends meet with wages that remain stagnant year after year.

The solution to the minimum wage problem is straight-forward. Simply “index” it, so that it is automatically adjusted each year to keep up with the cost of living. Indexing is already the law in 10 states. Workers in those states see a small automatic bump in their wages every year, helping families keep from falling farther behind on basic expenses.

Florida has indexed their state minimum wage. Georgia hasn’t. So while janitors and elder care workers in Jacksonville will be getting a raise next January 1st, the same workers in Valdosta won’t. In fact, Georgia’s state minimum wage is still $5.15 an hour, meaning that workers not covered by the federal minimum wage can still be legally paid this poverty wage in our state.

There is a proposal that would raise Georgia’s minimum wage to the federal rate of $7.25 an hour and index it to the cost of living. Despite broad public support to raise the minimum wage, it has yet to receive a House committee hearing.

This is really a shame. Fixing the minimum wage is vital for working families and key for restoring consumer spending that our economy needs to grow. A strong minimum wage puts money into the pockets of low-income families who spend it in their local communities. According to the Economic Policy Institute, last year’s rise in the minimum wage (from $6.55 to $7.25 an hour) generated $5.5 billion in new consumer spending.

It’s not just the economics of a higher minimum wage that makes sense. It’s also the right thing to do for our neighbors who are working hard and still struggling to stay afloat.
Rev. Hankins is an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a part-time faith-based organizer for the Georgia Minimum Wage Coalition.
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