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ABRAMS: Regional wage floors are best way for reform

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On January 16, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) actualized a long-awaited progressive campaign promise from the November midterms: an incremental raise of the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024. Emboldened by support from the cruxes of House and Senate Democratic leadership — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — Scott dubbed his bill the “Raise the Wage Act of 2019.” 

The idea of a $15 federal wage floor first came to fruition in 2012, when fast-food employees in New York City, Chicago and other large cities organized strikes in a movement that would become the “Fight for $15.” In the last seven years, the Fight for $15 movement produced a litany of policy victories: Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) codified a $15 statewide wage floor in 2016, while Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) signed Bill A-15 in February to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, which would be implemented in incremental raises, including a raise to $10 per hour on July 1, 2019. 

While the Fight for $15 movement has seen success at the city and state levels, Scott’s bill is facing resistance by moderate Democrats wary of the vitality of a $15 wage floor in states with a lower cost of living. And they might have a point.

A proposal by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) was introduced last week to directly challenge Scott’s bill — and the hallmark campaign promise of over 100 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — by suggesting the creation of a regional wage floor based on the cost of living. 

Swell's PHASE-in $15 Wage Act, predicated on an idea from centrist think-tank Third Way would implement wage floors at different times depending on the local economy, which would then rise with inflation. Therefore, the bill still idealizes progressives’ dream of a $15 wage, but implements it at faster or slower paces. For example, by 2023, New York and San Francisco would attain the $15 wage. 

Meanwhile, in Selma, Alabama, where Sewell noted the average home price is $90,000 compared to $326,300 in New Jersey, the minimum wage would start out at $9.80 and would eventually rise with inflation. In a medium-cost city like Spokane, Washington, where the average cost of a 2,700-square-foot home is $165,000, the wage floor would start at $12.70. 

Sewell’s bill, while it riles progressive Democrats and represents a shift from original ideals of the Fight for $15 movement, is the most fiscally responsible way to implement a minimum wage increase, as it accounts for the diverse life experiences of Americans in different regions of the country.

It has been argued that the urban-rural divide — disparate patterns of voting behavior depending on population density, which connote vast differences in the interests of Americans in rural and urban regions of the country — provides clues to Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election. Political scientists have posited that Clinton’s losses in rural Midwestern states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania were a testament to her inability to understand the needs and interests of residents in rural areas, given that she has spent much of her adult life in wealthy, suburban enclaves in New York. 

Data that divulges the urban-rural divide implies that, because urbanites and rural residents have different needs and interests, legislators should not take a cookie-cutter approach to policy, as such policies run the risk of benefitting some residents at the expense of others. With a new House majority, Democratic legislators now have the opportunity to draft policies that prioritize the needs of those that rejected the Democratic nominee in 2016. Scott’s $15 universal minimum wage bill would not prioritize the needs of those voters. 

Economists warn a $15 universal wage in a place with a low cost of living, like Selma, would catalyze the automation of labor, which would result in job loss. Meanwhile, a higher wage floor could greatly bolster quality of life in places like New York City, where the cost of living is 68.8 percent higher than the national average and the costs of goods are estimated to be double the cost of similar goods in other regions of the country. 

Sewell’s compromise sends a powerful message to rural Americans that Democrats understand their needs and interests. Progressives must understand the need to appeal to the country’s diverse interests if they want a Democrat to take back the White House in 2020. 

Ashley Abrams is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in political science. Her column, "Thank U, Next Opinion," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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