An unlikely ally in minimum-wage fight: Millionaires

CNBC's exclusive Millionaire Survey shows most wealthy Americans think the minimum wage is too low

As 21 states prepare to raise the minimum wage in 2015—eight more than last year—there's one ally of America's working poor that may surprise you: millionaires.

Sixty-two percent of America's millionaires support raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, according to the recently released CNBC Millionaire Survey.

Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside the McDonald's corporate campus on May 21, 2014, in Oak Brook, Illinois. The demonstrators were calling on McDonald's to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour and offer better working conditions for their employees.
Scott Olson | Getty Images News
Fast-food workers and activists demonstrate outside the McDonald's corporate campus on May 21, 2014, in Oak Brook, Illinois. The demonstrators were calling on McDonald's to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour and offer better working conditions for their employees.

The results suggest a near-unanimous belief that, even among those opposed to raising the wage to $10.10, the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is too low. Ninety-one percent of millionaires think the current federal minimum wage is too low.

The CNBC Millionaire Survey numbers are in line with the way America's total population feels about raising the minimum wage. Sixty-five percent of Americans support raising the minimum wage, according to most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll.

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Thirteen U.S. states lifted the minimum wage in 2014, up from 10 in 2013 and 8 in 2012. Documents leaked last week show that Wal-Mart Stores, the largest corporate employer in the U.S., is adjusting its pay scale in an attempt to minimize the impact of the widespread minimum-wage increases planned for next year.

When asked, "What is a fair minimum wage?" only 47 of the 500 millionaires surveyed gave a number at or below the current federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. All other respondents gave a fair wage above the federal minimum, with 38 percent saying the wage should be higher than the $10.10 wage proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union Address in January.

The survey revealed a divide among political lines when it comes to raising the federal minimum wage: Support from 93 percent of millionaire Democrats, 59 percent of Independents and 39 percent of Republicans.

Whether support from the wealthy for a higher minimum wage is a matter of conviction or misunderstanding remains open to debate.

"I think these respondents just aren't aware of where the starting line is," said George Walper, CEO of Spectrem Group, which polled 500 Americans with investable assets of $1 million or more for CNBC. "They support raising the wage to $10 an hour because they don't realize it's so low to begin with," Walper said. "If we had framed it as 'Do you support a 30 or 40 percent increase in the minimum wage?' we might have had more people saying no."

Millionaires believe that most states also have a minimum wage that is too low. Currently, 23 states have a minimum wage above the federal minimum, with the highest state minimum in Washington State at $9.32/hour. Two- thirds of the millionaires surveyed in those 23 states believe in a fair minimum wage above $10. In New York, where the minimum wage is $8/hour, 48 percent of respondents said a fair minimum wage is above $12.

In Texas, where the state minimum is the same as the federal, 76 percent of respondents said a fair wage is $8 or higher. In Pennsylvania, which also uses the federal minimum, 97 percent said a fair wage is above $8, and 42 percent said more than $12 is fair.

Despite the widespread agreement on the issue among a politically active segment of Americans (93 percent of millionaires say they voted in the 2014 midterm elections), it may not translate into a push for action from Congress on a higher federal minimum wage.

Only 12 percent of millionaires said raising the wage should be Congress' top priority next year. The issue landed a distant fourth place behind corporate tax reform (24 percent), immigration reform (22 percent) and repealing the Affordable Care Act (20 percent).

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Along party lines, only 4 percent of Republicans and only 7 percent of Independents say raising the wage should be the top priority. For Democrats, it tied for the most important issue with immigration reform (26 percent each).

Walper maintained that the support for a higher minimum wage doesn't reflect a deep understanding of the issue's details. "The topic is extremely emotional and political, but we can't say with any degree of confidence that people understand what their state's minimum wage actually is," he said, adding, "Instead, they're responding based on what seems intuitively fair."