In recent months, the economic downturn has strengthened the value that Nebraskans place on a hard day’s work. Now, more than ever, we recognize and appreciate the opportunity to earn a living to support our families. This is, in part, why we can celebrate the recent minimum wage increase from $6.55 to $7.25 which will provide a much-needed boost for low-wage workers across the state. As our colleague Annemarie Bailey Fowler (director of the Opportunity@Work coalition, a public/private coalition dedicated to strengthening the financial stability of Nebraska’s work force and families) stated in this recent opinion piece, 70 cents really can make a difference in the lives of working people. “Midlands Voices: Increase in minimum wage will help; more steps await” This is particularly important in a struggling economy when job and hour losses are hitting home.
We can also celebrate this change because it represents a national commitment to fairer wages for workers. A minimum wage increase will help reverse the trend of declining real wages for low-wage workers. The inflation-adjusted value of the minimum wage is 17% lower in 2009 than it was in 1968. In other words, the ability of minimum wages to provide for basic needs has eroded over the years.
That fact reminds us that it is important to remember that the increase in wages is just a part of the overall equation necessary to help struggling families throughout Nebraska. The minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction, but we must take more steps towards valuing workers as well as work. For example, Friday’s increase came in the midst of a heated debate over health care reform, and it highlights the urgency of that issue. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers at all income levels have suffered declining rates of employer-sponsored health coverage, low-paid workers are particularly unlikely to get employer-sponsored health insurance and individuals in the bottom 20% of the household income scale are the least likely to have employer coverage. When we value workers as well as work, when we value people for what they contribute to our communities as well as the services they might provide, we place new importance on their health and well being – and new importance on issues such as access to health care.
We must continue to build on the momentum of the minimum wage increase and make additional smart choices and good investments in child care, education, and other work supports to effectively address child and family poverty – and to make good on our value of work, and, perhaps more importantly, workers. To learn more about Appleseed’s vision for just this kind of progress and economic opportunity in Nebraska, take a look at our Economic Opportunity Campaign page and sign on to our Statement of Principles today.