'Not realistic for people to live on'
"The minimum wage is so low it's not realistic for people to live on," said David Cooper, an economic analyst with the left-leaning Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, in an interview with AOL Jobs.
President Obama has expressed support for increasing the minimum wage. During last year's state of the union address he called for the figure to jump to $9 an hour, as AOL Jobs reported. He has since signaled support for the Congressional Democrats' proposal to lift the number to $10.10 an hour.
The current year is a midterm election year and "President Obama and the Democrats have said they will be making a big push -- it's clearly going to be a major issue during the election," said Jack Temple, a policy analyst for the progressive National Employment Law Project. "Given the support it has, Democrats can clearly run on it," he added in an interview with AOL Jobs.
But such a readiness comes after years of congressional inaction. And in the vacuum the issue has been taken up by people on the streets -- in the form of protests among fast-food workers -- and in state legislatures. (The last time the minimum wage was raised was back in 2009, when it was increased from $6.55 an hour.)
Taking it to the states
Last year saw five states (California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island) and Washington D.C. approve increases in their minimum wage. And so as of Jan. 1, 2014, 21 states and Washington D.C. have a higher minimum wage on the books than the federal amount, as the National Council of State Legislature documents. (The highest state minimum wage is in Washington, in which the figure now stands at $9.32 an hour.) More campaigns have already been launched in states from Alaska to Maryland to secure an increase this year for the state minimum wage. (For more, read about the five states likely to approve a minimum wage increase in 2014.)
Indeed, the wave appears to be extending beyond coastal states known for their left-leaning constituencies. Importantly, several of the states mulling an increase of their minimum wage are scheduled to hold ballot-votes, as opposed to votes in the state legislature. And as Temple also told AOL Jobs, "no minimum wage ballot campaign has ever lost in the past 15 years. When voters have the opportunity to choose themselves, they tend to approve an increase with overwhelming majorities."
Aiming for a $15 minimum wage
Much of the momentum fueling the current drive to raise the minimum wage grew out of grassroots efforts like the fast-food campaign, according to the experts interviewed for this article. Activists and workers have publicly made the call at those protests for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, which would represent a more than doubling of the current federal rate.
Such an ambitious agenda has proved productive, according to Temple. "The $15 figure has introduced clarity and it shows that even $10.10 is a modest proposal," he said. "If workers are saying they need $15 an hour to make ends meet that it puts even more pressure on Congress to stop dragging their feet on a modest raise to $10.10 an hour."
The number has even proven to be a realistic goal for localities throughout the country. A $15-an-hour initiative in SeaTac, Wash., for instance, was approved by voters in Nov., as CNN Money reported. The plan took effect on Jan. 1 for the hospitality and transportation workers in the city whose economy is tied to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (The measure has since been struck down for employees working inside the airport itself, as the building is located in the jurisdiction of another city, Port of Seattle.)
'Indexing' the minimum wage
In a generation, however, even $15-an-hour could be deemed an insufficient figure for the minimum wage. And so in a bid to avoid having to constantly update the minimum wage, 11 states and Washington D.C. have adopted a method known as "indexing" the minimum wage. Through such a policy the minimum wage is increased annually by the same percentage that the state Consumer Price Index (CPI) – the average price paid for goods and services – has gone up in-state.
"As a result these states don't have to deal with the problem anymore and consumers' purchasing power is protected," explained Cooper, of the EPI. "If there's a growing trend it's a recognition that as low-wage jobs make up a bigger share of the economy the government can't afford to allow the minimum wage to stay flat as cost of living goes up," added Temple, from NELP.
The role of the private sector
But beyond the federal and state government there is one last group that can increase the salaries of low-wage workers – the companies themselves. "If history is any guide it's clear collective bargaining and protesting works," Temple said. To provide a case study, Temple mentioned the example of janitors, who he noted used to make salaries close to what fast-food workers make. But in the 1990's the high-profile Justice for Janitors movement led to the securing of 27 new employment contracts, replete with health benefits, at commercial cleaning contractors in cities like Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, as AOL Jobs has previously noted.
"If people see the hand that companies like Walmart and McDonald's play in creating low-wage jobs workers they become motivated," Temple explained. "And then pressure will be placed on the companies to do something."