Policy Today magazine cover
March 1, 2006

PT talks to George Miller, U.S. Congressman from California and sponsor of H.R. 2429, a bill that would boost the federal minimum wage.

PT: At the end of the day, is the minimum wage debate actually a conflict between economic and social principles? Can it be reconciled?

Miller: When it comes to raising the minimum wage, we actually do well by doing good. It is wrong that in 2006 a person can work full-time, all year, in the richest country in the history of the world, and still not earn enough to make ends meet in even the most basic ways. That is wrong, and it is immoral. It's also bad policy. By putting more money into the pockets of people who will go out and spend it, we will boost the economy. Even Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott acknowledged as much, when he said that raising the minimum wage would actually help his business.

PT: We are in the middle of the longest stretch ever without a minimum wage increase. How much is this a reflection of the new global marketplace, and what other factors are in play?

Miller: This is a reflection of one thing, and one thing only: the fact that Washington Republicans' priorities are totally out of sync with the rest of the country. Surveys regularly find that Americans support an increase in the minimum wage. But Washington Republicans have consistently put the powerful special interests ahead of American workers.

The legislation I have proposed is modest: it would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 in three steps over a little more than two years. It would also extend the minimum wage to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. Research has consistently shown that such a modest increase would not affect employment levels.

PT: What is the ultimate policy goal of raising the minimum wage, and what other policies are being pursued in Congress to make this goal a reality?

Miller: America should make a deal with all Americans. Here's the deal: if you work hard and play by the rules, then you will be able to have a decent standard of living. You will be able to have affordable health care, safe and decent housing, enough nutritious food to eat. You will have financial security in your retirement. In the richest country in the history of the world, this is a fair deal. The minimum wage is one step toward making this deal a reality. Pension reform, universal healthcare and universal childcare are other steps toward it.

PT: Ultimately, the debate over the minimum wage alludes to a greater ideological conundrum: free markets and limited government versus government intervention and social responsibility. Does this necessarily prevent consensus public policy on the issue, and what are the best (practical) opportunities to strike a compromise?

Miller: Ideology cannot be allowed to trump common sense. America owes much of its economic strength to free markets, and to the entrepreneurialism and innovation and spirit of the American people. But nothing is perfect, and that includes free markets. Protections against the worst excesses of the free markets—protections like wage standards and labor unions—helped spread the wealth and create the American middle class. Now, with those protections being constantly eroded, the middle class is shrinking. More and more Americans are joining the ranks of the working poor, while the richest Americans are growing even richer—beyond anyone's wildest dreams. That growing inequality threatens our social fabric and our whole way of life.

PT: Realistically, what are the odds that we'll see some movement on minimum wage legislation in 2006?

Miller: Democrats will continue to fight every day to raise the minimum wage. But Republicans control the White House, the House, and the Senate, so this will be an uphill battle.

George Miller represents California's 7th Congressional District. He is chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee and the top ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.