The Dream of Fifteen— How a Progressive Idea Is Paving Its Way Into the Forefront of American Policy

(This is a political article I wrote for Drake University’s Drake Political Review about the minimum wage in America.)

Numerous studies have shown that both Democrats and Republicans are in favor of increasing the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 since 2009. The question among Congressmembers is, to what extent and how fast? Progressives have their own idea.

It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic made its presence known in the United States, and many Americans are still struggling to deal with the economic aftermath. Progressives have long pushed for a $15 federal minimum wage, and they believe the idea is more important now than it ever has been— but questions have been raised about the effect a wage increase would have on the country. Is $15 a fix-all policy, or will it hurt the economy?

Supporters of the $15 minimum wage experienced a glimmer of hope in January when President Biden introduced a massive $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package into Congress. A key proposal in President Biden’s initial plan included a federal minimum wage increase of $15 an hour. 

Their hope was short-lived, however. 

After widespread debate between the House and Senate as to what components of the bill should make the final cut, the $15 wage increase was struck down in a vote on March 5, 2021. To add insult to injury for progressive Senators, seven of their fellow Democratic Senators and Independent Senator Angus King voted against the measure.

The push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour did not begin with President Biden’s relief plan, and it won’t end with it either. Progressive lawmakers have long advocated for an increase in pay for low-wage workers, citing that anything under $15 is not a livable wage for any American, let alone one who is trying to support a family on a single-income. With 65% of the population supporting an increase in the minimum wage, questions have been raised about why this measure would be voted out of the final relief package, especially by Democratic Senators. 

“The simple fact of the matter is that $15 as the minimum wage is just barely a living wage,” said Pete D’Alessandro, the Iowa director for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and 2018 candidate for Iowa’s third Congressional District. “And to have people that are working 40 hours a week not be able to sustain even a basic dignity, in terms of their day-to-day, is absolutely wrong… $15 is the low point, and there shouldn’t be any negotiations lower than that.”

The next step for members of Congress who are in support of the wage increase is an attempt to use reconciliation, a budget process that would let Democrats bypass the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will be responsible for drafting a resolution in the coming weeks that will cater to this idea.

“We need to include [the $15 minimum wage] with a bigger package so that lawmakers have to vote up or down on the full package, and we would do that if there is a vote on reconciliation,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), an avid supporter of the $15 minimum wage. “We have the power to make it part of the reconciliation… but it’s going to require Republican votes, and I am going to lead the charge on that.”

It has been over 11 years since the last time the federal minimum wage was raised, and many feel that another wage increase is long overdue. In 2012, the “Fight For $15” movement popularized the concept of $15 being the minimum hourly rate for workers. Since then, seven states have passed legislation to phase in a $15 minimum wage in certain cities, including New York, California, and Washington. This “magic number,” made popular by Progressive Democrats and grassroots campaigns, has caused controversy in both the political and economic realm. 

In a 2015 survey conducted by the UNH Survey Center, nearly three-quarters of U.S. based economists opposed a federal wage of $15, citing that the measure will have negative effects on youth employment levels, adult employment levels, and the number of jobs available. Additionally, seven out of ten economists believed that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees would struggle to keep their business afloat. A majority of the economists polled in the survey self-identified as Democrats.

The push to raise the minimum wage to $15 or more is not the only measure that stands at the top of the progressive agenda. Recent years have seen an increase in discussion surrounding substantial reform to America’s healthcare, higher education, environmental, and social justice systems. Medicare For All, a Green New Deal, Debt-Free College, and police reform have paved the way into the forefront of political dialogue, and the rise of the progressive movement has grown significantly among both candidates for office and the general public. Despite these policies still being considered controversial among many, more and more people are beginning to open up to them— particularly when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president in early 2015 and brought with him a set of policy ideas that had rarely been given a second thought in the public eye until then.

“[The Progressive movement] has always been there,” Pete D’Alessandro said. “But there were things that kept it from taking off… I used to say this about being on the Bernie Sanders campaign. He didn’t invent these ideals, they were there waiting for someone like him.”

President Biden signing the COVID-19 relief bill isn’t an end-all cure for the economic and social devastation that Americans have faced in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is clear to the majority of the population that there is still substantial work needed to be done to help offset the burden. What exact policies need to be implemented, however, will be under intense debate for the foreseeable future— and if there is one thing to be said about progressives, it is that their consistency on the issues don’t seem to waver with time and circumstance.

“People realize that so much of the country has been left behind,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). “So much of the country has not had economic dignity or a great economic future… And that means that the minimum we ought to give people is good healthcare… And it means that the minimum we should give people is good education…  And it means at the very least people should be paid fairly for their work, not being paid starvation wages. These are common sense ideas, and I believe the pandemic has made us more empathetic, more aware of the suffering of our fellow Americans.”

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