When President Franklin Roosevelt brought the federal minimum wage into its infancy, California’s had already graduated from college and was in the workforce. It was a new deal for the American people, but less so for Californians who enjoyed the benefits of a wage floor enacted twenty-two years prior.
This year marks the Centennial of California’s minimum wage, which at the time assured that workers would be paid at least 16 cents for every hour of labor. It was a landmark guarantee from government to working class people—wage levels were formally recognized as a concern for state economic growth.
Since 1916 wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, and low-wage workers constitute an ever-increasing share of our workforce. In fact, the purchasing power of low-wage workers peaked in 1968. The current state minimum wage of $10 per hour means that millions—six million at last count—of Californians are among the working poor, keeping their heads barely above water, financially — despite working longer hours.
Four in ten Californians live in or near poverty. A mere four hundred dollars in weekly gross income make rent, food, clothing, insurance, medicine, and school supplies seem like luxuries. What makes these realities more challenging is that one-third of low wage earners in California are under age thirty. Nearly sixty percent are under age forty—many of whom are parents of minor children.
With Governor Brown and my colleagues in the Legislature taking action to put California on the path to a $15 an hour minimum wage, we are recognizing our historic obligation to begin building an economy whose foundation is justice. We hope to foster an economy that rewards hard work with a living wage that works for all Californians.
Now, responsible leaders are obliged to shepherd in an era of smart policy for economic justice and inclusion.
I was born in 1987—an heir to the benefits of New Deal policy and Civil Rights advances—and believe deeply that economic justice should be a priority in responsible policy development. My affirmative vote to raise wages for nearly six million Californians is decidedly pro-growth and pro-worker.
As Chair of the California Assembly Committee on Revenue & Taxation, I scrutinize economic policy through the lenses of history, justice, and potential for net economic benefit. The coming minimum wage increase will give a needed boost to workers in the immediate and has equal importance as an investment in the future purchasing power of consumers.
That’s a future where — dollar by dollar, hour by hour — all Californians have an opportunity to work themselves into the middle class. Now, responsible leaders are obliged to shepherd in an era of smart policy for economic justice and inclusion. If we do, we will meet the moral obligation of governance, and our achievements can again shape history.
The coming increase in the minimum wage will accelerate the ascendance of those who were already poised through good fortune, the sweat of their brow and mental discipline to transcend poverty. California’s century-old enactment of a minimum wage was sound policy. We simply honor our past by investing in our future.
Sebastian Ridley-Thomas serves the South and West Los Angeles areas in the California Legislature.