US News: U.S. News & World Report: $15 Is the New $10.10

Cities are catching on that a higher minimum wage is not only sustainable but necessary.

This week, Seattle approved final legislation raising that city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour over several years. A wage floor at that level was politically unimaginable in the U.S. just a year ago. But today leaders in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Providence are all calling for $15 minimum wages. Over the weekend, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threw his weight behind a $13 minimum wage for New York City. And last Thursday the California state senate advanced a $13 minimum wage for the nation’s largest state.

In the wake of Seattle and this wave of similar proposals, observers are asking “why $15?” and “can a minimum wage at that level really work?” The answer is that it can, and that it’s the single most important step that cities and states can take to reverse our economy’s slide into low wages and begin the shift to a more stable economy that’s powered by a consumer class that can afford to spend again.

The push for a $15 minimum wage emerged from the fast food workers’ organizing drive that has made headlines this past year. But the McDonalds and Burger King workers’ “fight for $15” reflected a significant economic insight: that the current national goal of restoring the minimum wage to $10.10, while more substantial than recent minimum wage increases, still does not remotely approach the wage that low-wage workers actually need to provide for themselves and contribute to their families’ needs.

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The Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator shows that even in low-cost cities like St. Louis, a single full-time worker supporting a child needs to earn more than $24 an hour to cover basic living costs. The wages needed are as much as 40 percent higher in more expensive regions. And while many low-wage workers do not have children, the lion’s share are in working-class households and providing a major share – on average half – of their family’s incomes.

So a $15 minimum wage would be a very significant step towards reducing hardship and meeting family needs. It would also bring the minimum wage more in line with productivity gains over past decades, since the minimum wage would be over $16 per hour if it had kept up with even conservative measures of productivity growth since 1979.

But is it realistic to actually shift our economy and whole low-wage industries onto a path towards significantly higher wages? Many will be surprised to learn that there’s every reason to believe that it is – because it has, in fact, been done recently in both the U.S. and in other countries with similar economies.

[READ: How Republicans Can Take Back the Minimum Wage]

Looking abroad, Australia has a minimum wage of more than $15 per hour yet enjoys low unemployment and strong growth. Closer to home, Washington, D.C., instituted a substantially higher minimum wage and benefits standard for security guards in 2008, successfully transitioning an $8 occupation to one where guards now earn $16.50 in wages and benefits without evidence of ill effects on the commercial real estate industry, which pays the guards’ wages.

Similarly, Los Angeles, San Jose and St. Louis have all phased in minimum wages and benefits of more than $15 for airport workers without adverse effect. And San Francisco already requires all employers to provide minimum wages and benefits that together total $13.18 per hour for large employers, yet the restaurant industry has seen stronger growth in the city than in surrounding counties.

Equally significant, it is not just workers but also growing numbers of business voices that are backing the need for transitioning our economy to a $15 minimum wage. The Seattle increase was endorsed by a majority of the business representatives on the committee that negotiated it. In Los Angeles, real estate developers Eli Broad and Rick Caruso have called for a $15 minimum wage. And nationally, more voices from finance and tech, like investor Nick Hanauer, have been making the case that phasing in a $15 wage is not only feasible but an economic necessity in order to generate the consumer spending power that we need to break out of our tepid recovery.

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Many of these changes were dismissed by critics as unrealistic when first proposed, but successful on-the-ground experiences have proven otherwise. With every reason to believe that a $15 minimum wage economy is feasible, the question now is whether we will take advantage of this opportunity to win the type of real change that our economy needs and that America’s workers deserve.

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