When advocates for justice and equity in public education suggest that our nation will have to address America’s outrageous 22 percent child poverty rate as one step to improve school achievement, critics of such strategies point out that schools and teachers alone will have to build achievement levels, because there is little society can do to eliminate child poverty.
Two articles posted over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend suggest that there are steps we can take to ameliorate poverty, with a first step rather obvious: increase the minimum wage and automatically index it to inflation. If parents can earn a fair wage for the work they do, their children will be more secure.
Writing for the NY Times, Massachusetts economist Arindrajit Dube describes minimum wage reform as The Minimum We Can Do. According to Dube, “inflation-adjusted minimum wages in the United States have declined in both absolute and relative terms for most of the past four decades. The high-water mark for the minimum wage was 1968, when it stood at $10.60 an hour in today’s dollars, or 55 percent of the median full-time wage. In contrast, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, constituting 37 percent of the median full-time wage.” Ideally Dube would suggest raising the federal minimum wage to $10.78 an hour, though he would settle for the $10.10 per hour that is part of legislation already proposed by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and California Representative George Miller.
Writing for the New Yorker in Higher Calling, Steve Call presents a less technical but equally compelling case for raising the minimum wage. He notes that in local and state elections, voters have repeatedly been willing to pass ballot issues that increase the minimum wage. “The movement has momentum because most Americans believe that the federal minimum wage—seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour, the same as it was in 2009—is too low. A family of four dependent on a single earner at that level—making fifteen thousand dollars a year—is living far below the federal poverty line.” Coll concludes: “The case for a strong minimum wage has always been, in part, civic and moral. Minimum wages do not create new ‘entitlement’ programs or otherwise enjoin the country’s sterile debates about the value of government. They are designed to insure that the dignity of work includes true economic independence for all who embrace it.”
Dube reminds us of the words of President Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that all Americans deserve “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” “No business,” declared Roosevelt, “which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.”
It is perhaps easy to forget that increasing the minimum wage would likely affect school achievement, but there is overwhelming evidence that poverty and economic inequality are not only connected to the well being of children in America’s poorest families but also to significant income-related school achievement gaps. Although raising the federal minimum wage and indexing it to inflation might not eliminate the entire school achievement gap, it would be a very good first step.