Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Residents need more money in their pockets

At Thursday evening’s League of Women Voters forum for state legislative candidates, one of the questions was about increasing minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Tennessee has no state minimum wage, so the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour applies here. Minimum wage isn’t a local government issue, since state law prevents cities and counties from mandating a minimum wage, and anyway it wouldn’t make sense for a place like Oak Ridge to require a wage higher than that in the community next door.

At the forum, incumbents Rep. John Ragan and Sen. (and Lt. Gov.) Randy McNally, both Republicans said that the market should determine rates of pay, not government. Their opponents, Democrats Richard Dawson and Stuart Starr, both supported increases in the minimum. I’m disappointed by the incumbents’ opposition to a higher minimum wage, because I see the inadequate incomes of many local workers as a serious challenge for our whole community. Oak Ridge has far too many hard-working citizens who are having difficulty making ends meet without public and charitable assistance. I said as much in one of my responses to the Progress PAC questionnaire:

The biggest challenge I see … is that too many people don’t have enough money.  [This is not only a problem for these people, but also for our housing, schools, businesses, and civic affairs.] …The U.S. economy no longer generates jobs that pay the kinds of wages to low-skilled workers that earlier generations received. … I believe that we need a higher minimum wage in Tennessee, but city government can’t do that on its own…

The summer I was 17, I had a retail job that paid the federal minimum wage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Calculator, the hourly wage I received back then was equivalent in buying power to $10.36 in September 2018. That’s substantially more than the current federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Notably, a full-time worker getting $10.36 an hour should be able to afford a place to live here in Oak Ridge (unlike full-time workers getting $7.25, who are getting turned down by landlords who judge that they don’t make enough money to pay rent).

Over the last 80 years (since it was first enacted in 1938), the U.S. minimum wage has set a floor on the wages and salaries for all American workers (employers who want workers with more than minimum qualifications typically need to pay more than the minimum in order to attract and retain good employees), and helped create and support the middle class. I think our nation and state need to start raising that floor again, because hard-working people should not have to depend on charity to survive, and they deserve to have the resources to be good parents to their children, be good customers for business, and good contributors to the community at large.

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