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Minimum wage hike was long overdue

At last Congress has acted to increase the incredibly stingy federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.

It has not been changed for 10 long years, although the cost of living has continued to rise.

The minimum wage will be increased in three stages over a period of two years to $7.25 an hour. That is an improvement, but it will have taken 12 years to reach that level and still will be less than half of the average hourly wage for U.S. workers, according to a column by Bob Herbert in the New York Times.

Herbert writes: "The United States may be the richest country in the world, but there are many millions — tens of millions — who are not sharing in that prosperity.

"According to the most recent government figures, 37 million Americans are living below the official poverty threshold of $19,971 a year for a family of four. That’s one out of eight Americans, and many of them are children.

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"….. The number of poor people in America has increased by five million over the past six years, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to historic proportions. The richest 1 percent of Americans got nearly 20 percent of the nation’s income in 2005, while the poorest 20 percent could collectively garner only a measly 3.4 percent."

Major changes must be made if this country’s leaders are going to be more responsible in dealing with the effects of poverty on the lives of millions of people.

A poverty task force of the Center for American Progress has recently issued a series of recommendations that it claims would cut the poverty rate in half over the next 10 years. The center is a non-partisan research and educational institution that seeks opportunity for all Americans.

The recommendations include the following:

• Raise the minimum wage to $8.40 an hour, half of the average hourly wage in the U.S.

• Expand the earned-income tax credit to cover more workers.

• Expand the child care tax credit, now $1,000 per child for up to three children.

• Make sure that workers are free to join unions and bargain collectively.

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Obviously, there are many suggestions for reducing poverty. The question is why it has taken 10 years for the government to take any action on such a major problem.

One explanation is offered by Larry Mandell, president of the United Way in New York City. He is quoted as follows in another Bob Herbert column:

"In a given day, I might be in a soup kitchen and in the halls of Fortune 500 companies dealing with senior executives. I’ve become acutely aware that the lives of people who are well-off are not touched at all by contact with the poor. It’s not that people don’t care or don’t want to help. It’s that they have very little awareness of poverty."

That’s at least one explanation — and possibly a very charitable one — for why national leaders waited for a full decade before taking significant action to address the issue of poverty. The real reason may be that most people are chiefly focused on their own well-being and don’t feel any obligation to be concerned about the plight of those who are less fortunate.

It should be noted also that the $7.25 minimum wage is not generous. Seven states now have set their minimum wage levels higher than $7.25, and more than half of the states already had raised their minimum wages above $5.15 before Congress acted.

At least some progress has been made. What is needed now is a sustained effort by political leaders, government officials and the media to address the issue of poverty on an ongoing basis.

We should never again be guilty of a 10-year failure to address an issue that cruelly affects the lives of so many millions of Americans.

Bill Boyne is a former Post-Bulletin editor and publisher who writes a weekly column.

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