Today, a single parent earning minimum wage takes home $15,080 a year. That’s $3,400 below the federal poverty line for a family of three. President Obama noted the statistic in his State of the Union Address — “That’s wrong,” he said, calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $9 an hour because “in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”
The minimum wage has not always left a single income-earner for a family of three so far below the poverty line. In 1968, when minimum wage was at it’s highest point ever, that same breadwinner would have made $19,245 a year in today’s dollars — roughly a third more than he or she makes now.
In 1981, in an attempt to fight inflation, the minimum wage was frozen at $3.35 per hour despite the rising cost of living. It wasn’t bumped up until 1990, by which point it had fallen well below the poverty line for a family of two (about $2,500 lower than for a family of three). From 1997 to 2007, the minimum wage remained stuck at $5.15 per hour, as, once again, the cost of living continued to increase.
Between 2007 and 2010, the federal minimum crept up to $7.25 per hour, though individual states were given the power to raise the minimum wage above the national one, and nineteen have taken that opportunity. Now, Obama says, it’s time for the minimum wage to increase again nationally.
Obama also suggested in his State of the Union Address that, going forward, the minimum wage should be tied to the cost of living — an idea, he pointed out, that both he and Mitt Romney agreed upon. “Working folks shouldn’t have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher,” he said.
In a blog post, Economic Policy Institute analyst David Cooper explored that idea further. He ran the numbers on some other possible indices to which minimum wage could be tied. The chart below shows his work.
The “real average wages” line shows what would have happened if, starting in 1968, the minimum wage increased at the same rate that American workers on the whole saw their wages increase. The “productivity” line shows what would have happened had the minimum wage been tied to the economy’s “overall capacity to generate income.” The dark blue line shows what would have happened if, in 1968, the minimum wage had been tied to the income of the top 1 percent. If minimum wage workers saw the same massive increases in income that the America’s richest have enjoyed since the 1970s, the lowest-paid worker in America today would be making $28 an hour.