Editorial | America deserves a raise

The following editorial appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday.

The Give America a Raise bus tour stopped in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Like the protesters who held a rally outside a North Philadelphia McDonald’s earlier this month, the group traveling across the country is urging an increase in the federal minimum wage.

More importantly, the demonstrators are focusing attention on the need to change how all American workers are regarded and paid.

It’s time to stop derisively viewing fast-food workers as “burger flippers.” The term doesn’t do justice to workers whose pay means much more to the U.S. economy now that millions of higher-paying manufacturing jobs have traveled overseas.

America lost almost six million manufacturing jobs in the 2000s, and it’s doubtful that a significant number will return.

Don’t blame U.S. workers for that; their productivity increased during that period. But some blame can be placed on the trade policies of successive presidents since the 1980s, which perpetuated U.S. job losses.

Manufacturing jobs have dropped from 22 percent of U.S. nonfarm payrolls in 1977 to less than 9 percent today. Economists say a key factor perpetuating that decline was the United States’ guarantee of low tariffs to China when it granted permanent normal trade relations to that country in 2000.

China subsequently boosted production and imports.

The recession didn’t help matters. Most American jobs created since 2009 have been in the lower-paying service sector — restaurant workers, sales clerks, etc. — with wages of up to $13.84 an hour.

A number of these jobs pay no more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, that amounts to 23 percent less than it did in 1968.

President Barack Obama wants to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but protesting fast-food workers are among those asking for $15. Meanwhile, business groups say any mandated wage hikes would lead to layoffs to protect companies’ bottom lines.

Bigger payrolls may require adjustments initially, including some job losses. But putting more money into workers’ purses and wallets also gives consumers more purchasing power, improves cash receipts and should eventually restore jobs.

Most of the lowest-paid U.S. employees work for large companies, some of which gave fat raises to executives after recovering from the recession. They should spread their good fortune, especially given income disparities in this country.

Many workers in low-paid jobs went to college to achieve a middle-class lifestyle for their families. They can’t make it on the only wages available to them.