This week's State of the Union address made clear that President Obama plans to deliver on his promise to put jobs and the economy front and center on his second term agenda. His call to increase the federal minimum wage and index it to inflation cements the growing consensus that one of the best ways to get the economy going again is to put money in the pockets of people who work, the people who will spend it at small businesses and in their communities.
Fundamentally, the President understands that a higher minimum wage - not tax breaks for the rich - is what's needed to drive economic growth for those who most need it in America: workers. And for low wage workers everywhere, this increase is long overdue.
The last time Congress passed a minimum wage increase was more than five years ago. Since then, more than a dozen states across the country have successfully increased the minimum wage in their state. It is well past the time for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to ensure working families don't have to live in poverty, and can help contribute to the economic recovery.
In his speech, President Obama also lent his support to the Paycheck Fairness Act, critical legislation that aims to fix the wage gap between women and men doing the same jobs. This type of economic inequality costs women and their families dearly in today's economy: women make up 59 percent of the low-wage workforce and nearly two-thirds of those workers earning minimum wages.
The President's support for an increase in the minimum wage and a solution to pay inequity demonstrates his understanding of the growing problems with today's service-based economy, where most of the jobs being created are low-wage, temporary jobs. They're not the kind of jobs you can feed a family on. And rarely do these jobs offer the benefits or protections needed to create stability for a family or a sustainable path to the middle class.
That shift toward low-wage jobs is a 30-year trend that is only accelerating, according to a recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Similarly, an August NELP study showed that while the majority of jobs lost during the recession were in middle-wage occupations, 58 percent of those created since then have been low-wage occupations.
The care industry is a perfect illustration of these issues. Every eight seconds another person in this country turns 65, and predominantly-female home care workers are on the front lines of this tremendous demographic shift. Home care work is one of the fastest growing workforces in the economy today, yet the poor quality of home care jobs leads to high turnover and diminished quality of care. While the median annual salary for an American worker is $31,219, the median salary for a home care worker - almost all of whom are women - is $16,800.
And although President Obama's speech made a call to action on immigration reform, it's important to take that call one step further, and connect it to our larger economic issues. We can seize on the President's vision of reducing poverty and creating a durable ladder to jobs and opportunity for all through real immigration reform. Policymakers can usher in shared prosperity through an inclusive, broad approach to immigration that bottom lines core labor protections, including the right to organize and bargain collectively; a clear roadmap to citizenship for the full 11 million aspiring citizens; and a stop to the cruel enforcement measures that tear communities apart and criminalize immigrant workers.
Immigrant workers - many of whom make minimum wage - make our country work. We owe it to them to make the economy work for them too. In reality, all workers in our country stand to benefit if we can lift wages, living standards and workplace conditions for immigrant workers. Studies show immigration reform policies with a path to citizenship can raise the wage floor for every worker, particularly in low-wage industries.
Today's economic challenges result directly from decades of inadequate job growth, wage stagnation and growing inequality. President Obama laid out a smart, fair and wise plan to give some of our nation's most vulnerable workers a raise, strengthen the economy and the middle class, and protect the safety net we all may someday need. Let's make sure the President doesn't back away from an opportunity to truly raise the floor and turn the tide for all working Americans, no matter where they were born.