Opinion: $15 minimum wage is a home run policy. Why must voters pass it themselves?


Raising wages has already proven to be widely supported and reasonable around the country — and not just in major cities or liberal-heavy states.

By Kelly Hall

The idea that a $15 minimum wage is a radical liberal concept only being sanctioned by "coastal elites" like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is steadily wearing thin. An effort in Nebraska to adopt a $15 minimum wage statewide will be on voters' ballots in November after campaign organizers submitted more than 150,000 signatures as part of its qualification effort — including at least 5% of the voting population in each of the state's 93 counties. Another proposal seeking to raise wages in Nevada will also appear on ballots for voters during these midterm elections.

Nebraska, far from either of America's coasts or being a bastion of liberalism, is only the latest of several states considering citizen-initiated ballot measures to pass highly popular wage increases while Congress refuses to take action. Illogically — and infuriatingly — Congress hasn't passed a bill to raise the federal minimum wage in more than 15 years. The minimum wage would be more than $20 an hour if it had been adjusted to maintain pace with worker productivity in the time since then.

This isn't just a result of bad politics – the failure to adjust the country's minimum wage is an economic and moral travesty. Americans who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s are now watching their children and grandchildren grow into a standard of living far below their own generation's standards. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the value of the federal minimum wage today is at its lowest in 66 years. Workers earning the federal $7.25 minimum wage are making 27% less than a worker earning the same in July 2009, adjusted for inflation, and 40% less than a minimum wage worker in 1968.

While it certainly isn't a cure-all for economic challenges, the national $15 minimum wage policy proposed by progressives would make a sizable dent in that discrepancy. Phased in by 2025, the new floor would mean giving a raise to 32 million workers — more than a fifth of the entire American workforce.

Despite the standstill in Washington, there is good news. Two-thirds of Americans know that increasing the minimum wage is the right thing to do, because working people need to put food on the table, pay the bills, and care for their families. In 30 states and dozens of cities, wage standards have been raised without Congress' help. The growing solution developing across the country? Citizen-initiated ballot measures.

Ballot measures allow voters to pass laws by voting "yes" or "no" on policy questions. In 22 states and Washington, D.C., citizens are allowed to collect signatures and place policy questions before their fellow voters on Election Day — meaning people can create the change they want themselves instead of waiting for their elected officials to act.

The Fairness Project has worked with campaigns and local partners to pass minimum wage increases in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Washington State — all through ballot measures. We have helped to put more than $22 billion in the pockets of the American people, because when given a choice on their ballot, they choose higher wages over the status quo.

Ballot measures aren't only good for adjusting the minimum wage to a livable standard. In the past decade, when voters have had the chance to make their own policy choices, they have chosen progress repeatedly, in the form of better benefits like paid leave and expanded health care; drug decriminalization; police accountability; defending democracy; and protecting reproductive rights.

We've seen resounding votes for progress in so-called "red states": A total of 68% of voters in Arkansas raised wages for 300,000 people, over 61% of voters in Idaho chose to expand Medicaid, and Arizonans voted in favor of raising wages and ensuring paid sick leave by a three-fifths majority. This summer, Kansas voters chose to defend their right to abortion by a double-digit margin over voters who opposed.

Few ideas in our political system come without polarization, gridlock, and bureaucratic obstacles to progress. Raising the minimum wage is no exception — but workers and advocates have been putting in the time and energy to build a strategy to create policy change with citizen-initiated ballot measures for over a decade, and they're winning.

The $7.25-an-hour minimum wage is a relic of another era. It's also a sign that our leaders are profoundly out of touch with the population's needs and wants, and that direct democracy is the path forward. Those who claim to be friends of working families would do well to recognize what's been happening in states and cities across the country, while national leaders continue to kick the can down the road, and work to lend more support to those making change with ballot measures.

If Congress won't do its job, voters will do it for them.

Kelly Hall is the Executive Director of the Fairness Project and has over 15 years of experience making change in government, with the labor movement, and through winning ballot measure campaigns. She currently lives in Oakland, California.