One of the clearest distinctions to come out of the presidential debates so far has been around the minimum wage – specifically, the Democratic candidates' support for, and the Republican candidates' opposition to, raising the federal minimum wage.
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Raising it would disproportionately benefit women, and would help millions of families make ends meet. Voters overwhelmingly support an increase. So, where do the candidates stand?
At the Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, Senator Bernie Sanders and Governor Martin O'Malley expressed support for a $15 an hour minimum wage, while Secretary Hillary Clinton said she would raise the federal minimum wage to $12, but she also supports state and local fights for $15 in places "that can go higher" like Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City.
At the Republican debate in Milwaukee, Wisc., it was a very different story. Moderator Neil Cavuto referenced "Fight for $15" protests outside the debate venue and asked Donald Trump if he was sympathetic to the cause. Trump responded that he was not. He said, "…[with] wages too high, we're not going to be able to compete against the world. I hate to say it, but we have to leave it the way it is." Dr. Ben Carson agreed saying, "Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases." Senator Marco Rubio joined the opposition chorus, calling raising the minimum wage "a disaster."
How do the candidates' positions stack up against the interests of women and families? Working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks (a full year) at the minimum wage pays $15,080 before taxes. For the millions of Americans without paid sick days, taking even four unpaid days during the year to recover from illness or go to the doctor would lower that to $14,848 (assuming they don't get fired). The cost of child care for a 4-year old currently consumes more than half of a minimum-wage earning parent's budget in 20 states; and 30 percent or more in every other state. And infant care costs more than half of a minimum-wage-earning parent's income in 37 states. More than one in four working mothers and 40 percent of all single mothers would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Many people don't associate minimum wage with the gender pay gap, but since two-thirds of the people who would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage are women, higher minimum wages would help close the gender gap in pay. In states with higher minimum wages than the federal floor, the difference between men and women's paychecks is 22 percent smaller than in states with a $7.25 minimum wage. With women currently paid on average 79 cents for every dollar paid to a man nationally, a minimum wage increase is a big deal not just for helping families stay afloat, but also for getting closer to equal pay for women and men.
What about Trump, Carson and Rubio's concerns about negative consequences? Those doomsday predictions have been proven wrong again and again. In a letter to President Obama and congressional leaders, 600 economists, including seven Nobel Prize winners, wrote: "Research suggests that a minimum-wage increase could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front."
Those same economists pointed to evidence that past increases in the minimum wage have had minimal to no impact on job loss. As Senator Sanders explained, the real problem is that people don't have disposable income to spend in the economy. He said what the economists agreed upon: that putting money into the hands of working people will encourage them to go out and spend it on goods and services, leading to job creation.
Without an increase in the minimum wage, life in America is like walking a tightrope for too many women and families. Something is wrong when responsible, hardworking families live in poverty or barely scrape by while the rich accumulate more and more wealth. Recent polling data show that voters understand how important this issue is for women and families. Nearly two-thirds of voters in swing states say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports increasing the federal minimum wage.
The debate moderators did a great job in bringing up this issue, which is so important to American voters. The candidate positions on the minimum wage are clear, and now the voters will get to make their choice.