On Aug. 18 – after nearly six months of deliberation and town hall meetings – the Santa Clara City Council will likely vote on an ordinance to raise the minimum wage in the city by $1 to $11 an hour; matching the minimum wage in neighboring cities. The proposal includes automatic increases every January corresponding to the previous year’s Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Sunnyvale, San Jose and Mountain View are moving ahead with similar ordinances. Nowhere is the need for a regional approach made more clear than at the Valley Fair shopping mall, where the minimum wage at the Macy’s men’s store is $9, and at the rest of Macy’s it’s $10.30. That’s because the men’s store is in Santa Clara and the rest of Macy’s (on the opposite end of the mall) is in San Jose.
But whether the minimum wage is $10, $11 or $15 an hour, a minimum wage isn’t a livable wage – although more than a century ago the terms were used interchangeably.
As American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers defined it during an 1898 debate, a minimum wage was “… a wage, which, when expended in the most economical manner, shall be sufficient to maintain an average-sized family in a manner consistent with whatever the contemporary local civilization recognizes as indispensable to physical and mental health, or required by the rational self-respect of human beings.” He further added, “Upon its recognition and observance depends the welfare of society in our day and the progress and civilization of the future.”*
If Gompers was right, American society is heading in the wrong direction. The only time the federal minimum wage reached the poverty line was in 1968, and it’s been dropping ever since – to 60 percent of the poverty level for a family of four, where it has stayed since 1989, according to U.S. Census.
In Santa Clara County the livable wage to keep just one adult above the poverty line is about $14 an hour, according to MIT’s Living Wage Calculator. For a family of four, that jumps to $33 an hour for one person working or $17 an hour for two people working.
*The New York Times, March 11, 1898. In the three-hour debate, exhaustively reported by the Times, Gompers’ opponent Edward Atkinson retorted that paupers were indeed entitled to a living wage – which was already provided for them by the Poorhouse. 22.8%