Janine Jackson interviewed economist Michelle Holder about Black women and the minimum wage for the March 5, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: As we record on March 4, some congressmembers say they aren’t giving up the fight to include a raise in the federal minimum wage in a coronavirus relief package, despite the questionable call by the Senate parliamentarian that its inclusion violates a procedural rule.
Significant as that is, and much as we all can benefit from the civics lesson, what do we lose when news media pivot to a conversation focused on legislative machinations—and away from one presuming that a measure that says you shouldn’t work a job and live in poverty at the same time is just baseline decency, that every day without it constitutes a crisis?
And not, of course, a crisis impacting all equally: Often noted but rarely centered is how the proposed wage increase to $15 an hour would address structural racism, add some substance to that racial “reckoning” elite media keep insisting we’re having, and in particular improve the lives of Black women, widely understood as economic linchpins.
Joining us now to talk about this set of issues is economist Michelle Holder. She’s associate professor of economics at John Jay College/City University of New York, author of the book African-American Men and the Labor Market During the Great Recession, and also of the 2020 report The Double Gap and the Bottom Line: African-American Women’s Wage Gap and Corporate Profits. She joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Michelle Holder.
Michelle Holder: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
JJ: I’m not saying this isn’t a story about Democrats delivering on an electoral promise, and what it means for the Biden administration, and for the midterms, if they don’t. I just worry that if it’s presented preeminently through that lens, some folks might lose sight of how material, how basic, this should be, by any criteria, really. But the federal minimum wage affects the lives of Black people, and Black women, in particular ways. Can you tell us about that, and what raising that wage could mean for Black women?
MH: Sure. So there are a couple of facts about the demographics of who receives the minimum wage in this country. One of those facts is that women form the majority of minimum wage workers; more women than men are minimum wage earners. The other thing is that proportionately more Black women earn the minimum wage, as compared to Black men.
And so, when you combine those two facts together, the picture is pretty clear: There are about 10 million African-American women in the US labor force. And so one might imagine that a heck of a lot of those women are earning either the minimum wage, or just above the minimum wage. So this issue, while it’s been couched as one that disproportionately affects women, if we looked at Black women specifically, they are disproportionately represented among minimum wage workers. And so this issue of raising the minimum wage has direct implications for Black families and the Black community.
JJ: So Black women are both kind of overrepresented, or disproportionately represented, in minimum wage jobs, but then also, there’s something regional going on, right? That they’re often in states that don’t have that higher minimum wage.
MH: Absolutely. So of the 50 states, about 29 states have a higher minimum wage than the federal minimum wage, and then the remaining 21 states adhere to the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, because some of those states don’t have their own minimum wage. (There are two notable exceptions to those remaining states: Georgia and Wyoming, both of which have a minimum wage that’s lower than the federal minimum wage.)
But the point of the matter is that of the 21 states that have a minimum wage of $7.25 or even lower, seven of them are located in the South. And more than half of African-Americans in the country live in the South. So we’re talking about a real, palpable regional difference in terms of what a raise in the minimum wage would mean for Black women.
The South is an area where, historically, wages are lower than in the North. And so, absolutely, we need to not only look at this as a national problem, in terms of how low the federal minimum wage is, but regionally as well.
JJ: I can never really get my brain around how media can present a corporation as a “success”—a “successful corporation”—based on profit margins that are derived from paying workers so little that they rely on government assistance. And we’re supposed to despise the reliance on state aid, and lionize the billionaire that gets rich off of it. And I just really…it hurts my head. And that’s why I so appreciate how your report, The Double Gap and the Bottom Line: African-American Women’s Wage Gap and Corporate Profits, connects those dots. They’re connected!
MH: Yeah, it’s really egregious. First of all, just in terms of the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour: That hasn’t been raised in over 12 years. Over that same time period, inflation has increased cumulatively by a full 20%, and I know that because I’ve calculated it.
But more than that, a person, if you have a family—a small family, even, two people let’s say, two adults, maybe a couple, one who works a minimum wage job; or a two-person family, one is an adult, one is a child, so a single-parent household, whether a single mom, a single dad—if that earner, the earner in that family, is earning $7.25 an hour, based on their family size, by federal standards, they are officially poor.
This is what we call “the working poor,” which really should not be in the vocabulary at all; someone who is working full-time, year round, they and their family should not be poor. But aside from that not insignificant fact, you simply cannot live on $15,000 a year; it’s practically impossible for one person to live on that, let alone two people, or more than two people. So we’ve got to move the needle on this issue.
But here’s where it’s been difficult, as I think most of your listeners know: In order for the federal minimum wage to be increased, Congress has to act; a bill has to be proposed, it has to be passed, and then signed by the president. When you have a Congress locked by partisan bickering, that is not a situation that is amenable to a minimum wage increase. And so, ultimately, paying workers a livable wage gets bound up in political bickering.
MH: And this should not be the case. There are, I believe, 18 states whose minimum wages are indexed to inflation. That is the ideal. But the way that the minimum wage has been set up in our system, based on the Fair Labor Standards Act, you need Congress to move any increase forward. And so one can see how we’ve gone 12 years without a minimum wage increase, because of these deadlocks that occur in Congress and in the Senate.
And, in fact, for the Senate to approve a minimum wage increase, a supermajority is needed, not even a simple majority. And in the current Senate that we have—which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans—we’re not going to see a minimum wage increase any time soon. Which is why there was an effort to try to insert a minimum wage increase into the current stimulus package, which, most of your listeners know, has failed. But that is why that occurred, because for the stimulus package to pass in the Senate, only a simple majority is needed.
JJ: So we think of it, though, it’s a multi-arena fight, right? Because there is the federal minimum wage—which obviously is a critical fight, which if it were won, would have a cascading effect—but at the same time, we do have states and cities and counties raising their own minimum wage; we have workers who went out in a dozen cities, just the other day. So there are other fronts on which to fight this. And, again, my concern is that sometimes, news media make it seem as though “We turned off the spotlight here and we turned it on somewhere else,” and that when they turn off their spotlight, the action stops. And that’s just not the case, yeah?
MH: Right, absolutely. And I’m a Black woman, and I happen to be an economist. And it is very clear that the people making decisions, at the national level, whether or not to increase the minimum wage are not representative of those folks who will be affected by a minimum wage increase, which is really women of color: Black and Latinas and Native American women and Asian women. Those demographics are not well represented in the Congress, particularly in the Senate. And so it’s so unfortunate that the whole aim, the original push to establish a minimum wage in this country, the goal was to ensure that people, workers, received a livable wage, enough compensation to pay their bills and feed their families. That was the goal. And that goal has been lost, completely lost.
JJ: Let me just ask you, finally, in terms of what journalism can help and can hinder: So much of the coverage seems to be about, “Does a fast food worker deserve $15 an hour?” whereas the framing could be, “Why should US taxpayers be subsidizing poverty wages at profitable corporations?” You could spin the whole conversation by just focusing it differently, and, as you’re saying, by including different people in the conversation.
But I just wonder, in terms of helping us move forward even from mythbusting: “Raising the minimum wage costs jobs,” you know, “It’s racist because poverty wages are Black people’s entry into the workforce.” We’re seeing all these kinds of old arguments rehashed, and I just feel like people are ready to go beyond mythbusting to really vision building, and talking about it in a positive way.
I wonder what you think reporting could do? What would you like to maybe see more of, maybe less of, that could move us forward on this issue?
MH: Definitely, Janine, I like, and I want to build on, what you mentioned about the fact that a worker making minimum wage, and trying to support a family on that, often does have to rely on social assistance—on Medicaid, on food stamps, or possibly on transfer payments in the form of TANF—that is costing the taxpayer, and thus the taxpayer is subsidizing corporate America, in that regard. In the paper that I wrote about the “double gap,” it doesn’t really talk about that; it talks about how workers, really—Black women in particular—are subsidizing corporate profits. But in terms of the minimum wage earner, absolutely, it is costing society.
So, yeah, let’s move away from the narrative of whether or not a fast food worker deserves $15 an hour, which I absolutely believe he or she does. But clearly, that narrative hasn’t been attractive enough to really get the needle moving in the direction that it needs to go. So let’s talk about these workers who must rely on additional social assistance, which is paid by taxpayer dollars.
And, yes, this subsidizes corporate America. Should we really be subsidizing corporate America? They just received an incredible slash in the corporate tax rate. They really don’t need any further subsidization from people in this country.
JJ: I guess the pushback to the double gap faced by Black women is the idea—which I find poignant, but also powerful—that because of the multilayer and intersectional harms that we face, policies that lift up Black women can’t help but help everybody else. And, of course, we know that one of those among the many women evincing that was Janelle Jones, and she called it “Black women best.” And Janelle Jones is now the chief labor economist. So is this idea that centering Black women in terms of policy is helpful to everyone, is that idea being mainstreamed?
MH: My hope is that it will be. I think that it has absolutely gained traction in the progressive community, because it, on its face, makes total sense. If policies are conceptualized to deal with the most marginalized, in a lot of ways, then certainly those policies will help those who are not as marginalized. So it can only serve to help everyone who needs help. But I don’t know if at this juncture, given the still-political divide in our nation, how mainstream that idea has become. I believe that in the progressive community, it has become a linchpin; it is really something that we point to, and it’s hard to push back on that idea.
(And oh, by the way, Janelle Jones and I have a co-authored article right now, in Feminist Economics, which is available online for free through July. That’s just a quick aside.)
I think that where we are at in this country, in terms of what we’ve seen with the last presidential election, what we’ve seen with QAnon and certain conservative movements, and certainly the resurgence of white nationalism, that this very potent idea is receiving a lot of pushback, such that it’s difficult for it to gain traction in a mainstream way. But my hope is that it will.
JJ: Well, there’s the work.
MH: Yes, there is the work.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Michelle Holder, associate professor of economics at John Jay College/City University of New York. The book is African-American Men and the Labor Market During the Great Recession; that’s out from Palgrave Macmillan. You can find the report, The Double Gap and the Bottom Line, on the website RooseveltInstitute.org. Michelle Holder, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
MH: Well, thank you so much, Janine, for inviting me.