We did not see many Connecticut Republicans at President Obama’s New Britain rally on Wednesday, and while that’s an obvious political reality, it represents a lost opportunity for the state.
Connecticut, with a minimum wage that’s already $1.45 an hour higher than the nation’s and going up to at least $1.75 higher in January if Congress doesn’t act, could only be helped by a national increase in the wage. That’s because the state could suffer as an outlier with higher costs, even though we’ve rightly made the decision to raise the minimum above national standards.
So why aren’t Republicans lining up behind Obama’s call for a sharp increase in the lowest pay for all workers? It is, after all, the GOP that argues a higher minimum wage gives a city or state a competitive disadvantage if other states have a lower wage.
In San Jose, Calif., for example, which raised its wage to $10 an hour one year ago while its neighbors remained at $8, the conservative Employment Policies Institute reported harsh effects including at least 12 businesses closing.
The reason we don’t see any bipartisan local support, despite the logic of it, reveals a lot about the debate that reached a shrill peak in New Britain with Obama’s speech. Unlike, say, abortion or gun control, arguments about wages are especially messy because it’s not just values in play but an impossibly complicated set of actions and reactions in the economy.
Obama, true to form, used his soaring moral rhetoric: “Nobody who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty!”
But it’s not just a moral and economic issue — it’s political. And Obama needs New England as the rabbit in this race. Famously a guy who keeps his eye on the ball, the president wants that national increase and he knows he can’t get it without help from the states. He knows the Republican-led Congress will not boost the $7.25 an hour wage unless a lot of states lead the way, and that’s why Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is his new best friend.
Obama said so clearly, calling the four New England governors sitting behind him on the podium a “supergroup,” quipping that they’d be dubbed the “New England Patriots” if that name weren’t taken. “I need your help,” the president said to the crowd at the close of the speech.
So, Democrats at the state level are part of the national strategy even as they worry about what’s happening inside their borders.
Republicans who oppose an increase say the wage is a poor tool for addressing poverty because employers reduce hiring and most people who earn the minimum wage don’t live in poverty.
“I don’t disagree that the minimum wage should be set at a reasonable rate,” state Republican Chairman Jerry Labriola said in a written release, “but what President Obama and Governor Malloy won’t tell you is that the CBO has projected that their proposal will result in a half million net job losses, and that’s a big concern.”
He was referring to the Congressional Budget Office, which last month estimated that a $10.10 minimum wage, the Democrats’ goal, would cost 500,000 jobs by 2016.
Democrats, backed by a petition of 600 economists, say the latest economic thinking shows that an increase might not cost any jobs at all. They say that despite urban myths to the contrary, less than 15 percent of minimum wage earners are teenagers. And of course, they point out that minimum wage earners spend all their money, boosting the economy efficiently.
“You get a virtuous cycle,” Obama declared Wednesday. “It’s common sense, that’s what I say.”
News reporters can and do find emotional examples of noble, low-wage workers who can’t build a life. The argument is made all the more compelling by the obvious fact that taxpayers are supporting those families.
The deeper problem with pay is that we as a nation have drunk the corporate Kool-Aid that work is about building business profits at all cost, not about sustaining families. The crisis is, at its core, a private-sector issue that state and federal governments can only affect in a blunt way, as more money goes to fewer people. Obama acknowledged that, too.
So Connecticut will do a favor for Obama and the nation by continuing to push ahead on the state wage. We can debate the value of that forever.
But as for the national wage, it hasn’t gone up since 2007 and is falling so far below the cost of living that a modest increase to, say, $8.50 would just bring us back to the zero point. It needs to be enacted and the Republicans are just dead wrong to oppose it outright.
In fact it should be pegged to inflation so we don’t have to endure this idiotic charade every three years.
Still, Connecticut Republicans believe they can’t push for a national increase and fight a state increase, and that’s why we did not see them at Central Connecticut State University today — except for New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, who got to meet Obama (“He has very soft hands!”).
Stewart, one of the nation’s youngest mayors at 26, Tweeted a selfie of herself with Obama in the photo. she said she sees both sides of the debate and has no position on an increase — adding that she “got a lot of grief” from anonymous Republicans on Twitter and some blogs for joining the rally Wednesday.
It’s too bad we didn’t put up a united front on the national wage. We could probably have cajoled Obama to drop a $1 billion check for that New Haven-to-Springfield rail line.