The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Myth-busting the minimum wage as the fight for $15 and the GOP debate converge

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Polling data that shows voter support for one or more of the proposals to increase the minimum wage. Source: Oxfam America and John McLaughlin

It’s clear that raising the federal minimum wage is a critical issue for America and in the 2016 election

It’s no coincidence that as Republican presidential candidates prepare for tonight’s debate on the Fox Business Channel, thousands of low-wage workers will take to the streets for a national one-day strike. The fight for a living wage for America’s workers is a critical political battlefield, and as we gear up for another conversation around the issues that matter most to Americans – it’s important to dispel the common myths at play around the federal minimum wage.

Since a group of fast-food workers in New York City first took to the streets to demand higher wages three years ago, we have seen a growing movement of workers challenging poverty-wage work, bringing the issue of low wage work to greater national attention. Today, fast food workers, home and child caregivers, and even adjunct professors will be rallying in 500 cities across the country, including the thousands who will be marching outside the Milwaukee Theater as the twelve remaining Republican presidential candidates take the stage. Together, they will speak their message clearly: $7.25 an hour is not enough to survive.

This is the first time that the Fight for $15 — the national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour — is directly challenging Presidential candidates, and voters, to address this issue. And thus, we have an important moment where these two stories converge – the debate and the protest – allowing us to bring the key question, realities, and misperceptions around the minimum wage to light.

Myth #1: Republican voters oppose a federal minimum-wage increase.

When reporters discuss the federal minimum wage the political context is often oversimplified, implying Republicans largely oppose an increase, while Democrats all support one. But don’t believe this story line! Polling by Oxfam America and GOP pollster John McLaughlin found that most Republicans (77%) in key battleground states support one or more proposals to increase in the federal minimum wage to $9, $10, $12 or $15 an hour. While most GOP voters support an increase, unfortunately most GOP candidates and members of Congress have yet to catch up. Thankfully, a few GOP candidates – Ben Carson, Gov. John Kasich, and Sen. Rick Santorum – have suggested the minimum wage should be increased, highlighting that this issue is not a purely partisan issue.  One caveat our polls did find is that GOP voters are less likely to support a minimum wage as high as $15 an hour (31%) than voters generally, a majority (50%) of whom support such an increase. More GOP voters support a federal minimum wage of $9 (66%), $10 (53%) or $12 (40%) each of which also have strong support from Independents and Democrats.

Myth #2: Republican candidates who support a federal minimum wage can’t win the nomination.

A common election-season storyline is that GOP candidates can’t touch certain generally popular positions, including the minimum wage, that are presumed to be unpopular with base voters who often determine who wins primaries. Still the Oxfam America/McLaughlin & Associates surveys of Iowa and New Hampshire GOP caucus and primary voters show that even among these very conservative electorates, a majority still supports an increase in the minimum wage (58% in Iowa and 59% in New Hampshire). Even among early-state primary/caucus voters who opposed an increase, most say they could still vote for a candidate who supports one. Primary and caucus voters were particularly supportive of an increase in the federal minimum wage if it could help to reduce low-income working families’ reliance on government assistance, or if it were paired with tax reform to help small businesses. The current front runner for the GOP nomination in, Ben Carson, says he supports an increase in the federal minimum wage as a way to help families transition off of government assistance.

Myth #3: Low-wage workers and their families won’t be a powerful voting bloc in 2016.

Low-income voters are often assumed to be less active and influential in US elections. Still, the growing numbers of workers and family members touched by low-wage work mean that low-wage working families now makeup a substantial bloc of voters. In fact, the Oxfam America/McLaughlin Associates poll found that 41% of voters (including 29% of GOP voters and 37% of Independents) would benefit financially or know a family member who would benefit from a $12 federal minimum wage, and almost universally support at least some increase in the federal minimum wage (97%). Particularly in key swing states where winners are determined by small blocs of voters, positions on the minimum wage could be a key to winning the Presidency.

So, whether you are marching on the streets or watching the debate, it’s clear that raising the federal minimum wage is a critical issue for America and in the 2016 election. Let’s hope the media and the candidates can get past the old rhetoric and into the realities of the minimum wage – and get it right!

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