BY Michael Finnegan, LA Times Staff Writer
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Sen. John F. Kerry called Friday for raising the federal minimum wage to $7 an hour, saying the move would help millions of Americans, particularly women, “break out of poverty.”
Kerry, winding up a week focused almost entirely on his appeal to the middle class, contrasted his wage proposal with the tax cuts that President Bush has made a centerpiece of his reelection effort.
Speaking to nearly 100 guests at a labor-union forum in this Washington, D.C., suburb, he said Bush “put wealth ahead of work” with tax cuts skewed to rich Americans who don’t need them.
“The wealthy folks are the ones who walked away with the biggest grab bag for nothing, while the people who are trying to work hard are doing worse,” Kerry said. “They’ve put something-for-nothing ahead of responsibility.”
The Massachusetts senator has long advocated a higher minimum wage, a Democratic Party staple. But on Friday, he announced that one of his first acts as president would be to push to raise it from $5.15 to $7 an hour by 2007.
The federal minimum wage would rise at the rate of inflation after that, Kerry spokesman David Wade said.
A dozen states have already enacted higher minimum wages, including California, where it is $6.75 an hour. The last rise in the federal minimum wage was in 1997, when it went from $4.75 to $5.15 an hour.
At the labor forum in Alexandria, Kerry lamented the decline of living standards for the poorest working Americans. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage has sunk to its lowest level since 1949, he said.
“Don’t you think … that if a president could go out and fight for four years to provide over a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the wealthiest people in America, we can fight for a few months to raise the minimum wage for the poorest people in America?” he asked.
It’s a good question, a fair question, and I’m glad he asked it–it’s about time somebody did. And I certainly appreciate his proposal for raising the minimum wage and his historical support for it going back years. But if Sen Kerry thinks $7/hr is going to help anybody ‘break out of poverty’, then he is as out-of-touch as Bush. For a 40-hr week, that’s $280 gross, about $200 after taxes–still well below the poverty line. It means that in all but the states with the lowest SOLs, you can eat but you can’t pay the rent, or you can pay the rent as long as you don’t eat one week out of three.
Sen Kerry is willing to take a good long step toward a living wage and should be applauded for it, but he also needs to remember: it’s just a step.