The economy may have lost its footing only recently but minimum wages have been eroding for much longer — almost 45 years since they peaked in real value in 1968.
The recent strikes across the country by thousands of fast-food workers demanding a $15 hourly wage have drawn attention to the worsening plight of the working poor.
Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage have stalled, leaving it stagnate at $7.25 since 2009 — more than three dollars less than the $10.50-an-hour rate that would be in effect if the minimum wage had simply kept pace with inflation.
If it had increased at the same rate as worker productivity, the wage would be $21.72 an hour. Had it kept pace with the income of the wealthiest one percent — the ones who supposedly trickle down economic success to the masses — it would be an astonishing $33 an hour.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The modest proposals put forth by congressional Democrats, a gradual increase to $10.10 an hour, and President Barack Obama, who proposed an increase to $9, are sorely needed, though they stand little chance of surviving Republican opposition.
Increases to the minimum wage, one of the most studied subjects of modern economics, would not cause mass layoffs or runaway inflation as opponents claim. Australia has had a minimum wage of $15 an hour for years, but has yet to financially implode.
Rather, a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, as proposed by the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, would lift the wages of one in four Kentucky workers, create 2,200 jobs and add $546 million to the state's economy over three years.
Nearly 18 percent of Kentucky's workers make minimum wage and another 9 percent of workers would benefit indirectly from the increase. That improvement in quality of life for thousands, coupled with its benefits to the rest of the economy, deserves bipartisan support — it's good for workers and it's good for businesses.
And while raising the minimum wage makes good economic sense, it's also the moral thing to do.
The stereotype of minimum wage workers as teens flipping burgers for pocket money is outdated.
More than half of minimum wage workers work full time. And nearly one in four of America's fast-food workers is raising a child on a full-time income that can be as little as $15,000 a year.
For comparison, another study by the EPI found that a family of four living in Lexington would need an income of $62,528 for a "secure yet modest living standard."
Low wages have high costs.
One consequence is ever-worsening income inequality. While the wealthiest Americans have enjoyed soaring incomes, wages for the rest of the country have stagnated.
Less money in the hands of ordinary workers means less spending and thus less growth in the economy as a whole.
That's why restoring the middle and lower classes is important to reinvigorating our sputtering economy. And raising the minimum wage is a needed first step.
Opponents to minimum wage hikes will resurrect the same canards long ago killed by mountains of economic studies, disregarding reality and promoting their own disdain of the poor as somehow lazy and deserving of their misfortune.
The inevitable whining about government overreach in raising the minimum wage comes from the same crowd that complains when minimum wage workers are then forced to seek government assistance.
To them, a Dickensian dystopia is not only admirable — Oliver Twist should feel ashamed of asking for more.