LENOX

Conservative politicians who claim they want to help elevate the lower classes should put some money where their mouths are and support raising the minimum wage.

President Barack Obama's proposal to increase the national minimum from $7.25 to $9 an hour is a worthy effort to lift the 4.2 million workers earning wages at or below the minimum up and over the poverty line. The most recent increase was four years ago.

No surprise that the prospects for passage are dim in Congress, given Republican intransigence and organized opposition by advocacy groups for retailers.

Although the lowest-paid workers account for just over 5 percent of all hourly-wage employees nationwide, you find them at entry-level jobs in fast-food chains, at retail checkout counters, nursing homes, in the home health-aide field and elsewhere through the service industries -- especially in the leisure and hospitality sector. Overall, hourly workers total 80 million, about 60 percent of all employees, according to the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of the minimum earners are working full-time, the sole support either as singletons or as family breadwinners.

More often, the minimum-wage workers -- 64 percent are female and 25 percent are Hispanic -- provide a second or third part-time income for an economically stressed family.


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Half of the minimum-wage earners are older than 25.

They provide the margin of difference between abject poverty and a working-poor income that allows scrimping by for only the bare essentials of daily life. They qualify for food stamps and tax credits, but even with support systems, they work paycheck to paycheck, often on the cusp of financial wipeout.

Recent polls show majority support among all groups, even Republican women, for boosting the federal minimum wage. The only exception: Republican men.

Turns out that Texas, Georgia and Mississippi have the highest percentage of minimum or below-minimum workers, while California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska have the fewest.

Massachusetts, where living costs are above average, is among the 18 states (plus D.C.) with a minimum wage above the federal standard. It's $8 an hour here, but that's lower than Connecticut and Vermont in the Northeast. Washington state is the highest in the nation, at $9.19 an hour. Several California cities, including San Francisco and San Jose, have their own, more "generous" minimums.

One of the key arguments marshaled by opponents of a raise for the nation's lowest-paid workers is that small businesses can't afford it and that hiring would suffer.

But most independent economists have found that the impact on employment would be minimal.

The effect on the economy would be positive, since lower-paid people spend most of their money day to day on essentials. Wages for employees above the minimum may spike, or at least uptick, to keep pace with federal and state standards.

A better minimum wage as proposed by Mr. Obama would be a small step toward confronting the gross inequality that afflicts our society. It's worth remembering that even now, women earn 82 cents on the dollar compared to men doing the same work.

Most importantly, a just and decent society rewards the people doing the least-desirable jobs by giving them a living wage. The current federal minimum translates to $15,080 a year for a full-time, year-round worker -- $500 below the government's poverty line for a two-person household.

It would be all too easy to dismiss an increase as impossible, given the near-paralysis of government in Washington. But noncynics should raise a hue and cry on behalf of their least-fortunate fellow citizens. Isn't that what our American values are all about?

Clarence Fanto, a regular Eagle contributor, can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.