If you work a minimum-wage job — $7.25 an hour is the federal rate — for 40 hours a week, your yearly earnings are $15,080. If you support only yourself, that puts you a tad over the federal poverty rate, but under the "living wage" rate for Pulaski County as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
If you support one or more other people on the minimum wage, you fall below the poverty line.
Some people would argue that you're not meant to be able to live on the minimum wage, though that was Congress' intention when it passed the first minimum wage law in 1938.
Others, like the Rev. Steve Copley, say the minimum should be a wage you can live on: "It's not right when people work hard and play by the rules and fall behind and can't make a living."
Most Arkansans agree with Copley, a poll conducted by the AFSCME (the public employees union) earlier this year indicates. More than half — 54 percent — of those polled would "definitely" like to see the state minimum wage raised from $6.25 (a rate that applies to a small number of employees) to $8.50 an hour, with annual indexing to inflation. Another 19 percent were "probably for" a raise.
But despite the poll showing 73 percent of Arkansans were for or likely for a modest raise, a proposal by Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, to raise the state rate even less — from $6.25 to $8.25 an hour — couldn't get out of committee in the last legislative session. It failed by one vote. The arguments against it were the same used the last time Arkansas raised the minimum wage, in 2006, under Gov. Mike Huckabee: It would hurt small business. Former Republican state Rep. Dan Greenberg went so far as to suggest that a raise in the minimum wage would be "cruelty in the guise of compassion," making it harder for persons without college degrees to get a job.
Given the broad support the survey suggested, Copley and Give Arkansas a Raise Now, a coalition of groups — faith-based, labor, civil rights, hunger groups, individuals — will try to put a hike in the minimum wage to a vote in the 2014 General Election. The ballot will propose a minimum wage of $8.50 an hour, tied to the consumer price index. They expect to get the ballot title before the attorney general soon and start the petition drive once the title is approved. Copley said they'll try to get 100,000 names to make sure they have the minimum of 78,000 legal voters required to get on the ballot.
Even $8.50 wouldn't approach what the minimum wage would be if it had been tied to inflation in the past four decades. The federal minimum wage in 1968 had the buying power of $10.74 in today's dollars.
A study by Pew Research found that the number of people who make the minimum wage is low: about 4 percent of hourly workers nationally. The South fares worse: Arkansas is in the Census Bureau region with the highest rate of minimum-wage workers, with about 7.3 percent of hourly workers making the federal wage or less. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total number of Arkansans who are making hourly wages of $7.25 an hour or less is 50,000.
There is a feeling that people making the minimum wage are mostly teens and those whose education ended at high school. Here's the real breakdown: Nearly half, 49 percent, are adult women. Twenty-eight percent are adult men. Teen-agers account for 24 percent.
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