I still remember my first job like it was yesterday.
I worked as a busboy at a local family restaurant, during our small-town fair. While the job only lasted a few days, I can still recall how incredibly proud I was that I earned a few dollars. I must have done something right, because the next year, that same family hired me to bus tables and wash dishes year-round at their restaurant. I soon went from busing tables to bagging groceries and then to stocking shelves at the local grocery store. I was proud to make minimum wage, and I worked very hard, despite being the youngest employee.
But I learned about chores and work long before I ever held that job, because I grew up on a small farming and ranching operation. So whether it was drying dishes after dinner or helping my dad with the cattle, hard work was simply a requirement for every member of our family.
In addition to the ranching and farming, my dad worked as a utility lineman — the people who climb up the power poles during a lightning storm to fix electrical lines, switches and transformers. My mother worked in a factory inspecting wheels on the assembly line. During those days, I learned to cook because my mom often worked seven days a week (and eating my dad’s cooking was not an option). I would work at the grocery store after school and on weekends. The work was formative for me, and having my own paycheck was very satisfying. It meant independence. It meant I could save for my own used car and not just inherit my sister’s old tornado-damaged truck. That paycheck was a huge source of pride.
Like many families across New Mexico, I learned the value of hard work — no matter who was doing it. My personal experiences made me realize why the minimum wage truly matters.
And minimum wage workers are not just teenagers. They are the woman working a minimum-wage job at a movie theater for eight years waiting for a raise, and the student working two jobs to make ends meet in order to finally get that college degree later in life.
Today, workers who earn the federal minimum wage find it difficult, some would say impossible, to make ends meet. At $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage has lost more than 30 percent of its value over the past 40 years. If the minimum wage had been tied to inflation and kept up with the cost of living, it would be more than $10 per hour today. This financial hardship is especially felt by women, who make up a disproportionate share of minimum-wage workers.
Stagnant wages hinder an individual or family’s chance to work their way into the middle class. This is why I am cosponsoring the Fair Minimum Wage Act to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015, in three steps of 95 cents. According to recent estimates, 104,000 New Mexicans would receive a direct raise and another 43,000 would see their pay increase as overall wages improve, dramatically increasing economic opportunities for these families.
A higher minimum wage helps reduce turnover, increases productivity and boosts consumer demand. A higher minimum wage puts more money in the pockets of people who are likely to spend locally, and it helps create a ladder of opportunity into the middle class.
New Mexicans are not strangers to hard work, but embrace the belief that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead. But the truth is, the deck has been stacked against working families for some time now. While education, utilities, health care costs and housing costs have all increased, hourly wages and middle-class incomes have not kept up. Too many New Mexicans are forced to make decisions that hurt the progress and strength of our nation — like taking on another shift instead of pursuing education, or having to choose between paying the heating bill or the phone bill.
Raising the minimum wage is key to ensuring our economy continues to recover from the recession. But raising the minimum wage alone is not enough to constitute a middle-class economic agenda. We must also increase our investment in the one thing that has always created real upward mobility — education.
We need to put preschool within the financial grasp of every working family and address the outrageous increase in college tuition and loans. We must invest in vocational training and help build the modern American manufacturing economy of the 21st century. Some of these policies will need to come from the local and state level. But higher wages together with educational opportunities for middle-class families is a formula for a real opportunity agenda. It’s time to increase the minimum wage.
Martin Heinrich is a U.S. senator from New Mexico.