By Shelly Ruzicka
On the sunny morning of May 17th, over 100 community supporters including Chicago and suburban residents, workers, clergy, and lay leaders traveled to Springfield to educate their legislators on the need to increase the state minimum wage. The group consisted of individuals from member organizations of Raise Illinois, a coalition made up of non-profit organizations, labor groups, businesses, and religious leaders who understand that increasing the minimum wage will directly benefit working families struggling to pay the bills as well as the Illinois economy.
The day consisted of a rally outside the Capitol building and visits to legislators’ offices. While not everyone was able to speak to his or her own Representative or Senator, those who did found it productive and empowering. “I feel I’m coming back from this trip a different person. I learned so much,” said Rev. Myiam Renaud. Knowing each legislator has thousands of constituents, she found it surprising so many coalition members were able to see their representatives without appointments, and valued having the opportunity to share critical information with them. “When we come with the facts, we have a real opportunity to impact our legislators. Even one person can make a difference.”
At a time when democracy seems to have been hijacked by corporate and wealthy individual donor spending, many found it refreshing that at the state level, so many legislators were not only open to meet with constituents, but to hold productive discussions that may help influence their votes. This is why the coalition has worked so hard to mobilize all stakeholders. It’s a lot harder for legislators to turn a blind eye to the benefits of a minimum wage increase when a diverse community of low-wage workers, small business owners, and religious leaders all have the same rallying cry.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), minimum wage increases can provide an economic boost to our state’s economy by putting more money into the pockets of low-wage earners who will return their earnings directly to the economy by spending in their communities—at grocery stores, gas stations, etc. The EPI released a study called “The Benefits of Raising Illinois’ Minimum Wage.” In it, the researchers state, “Economists generally recognize that low-wage workers are more likely than any other income group to spend any extra earnings immediately on basic needs or services that they could not previously afford. Increasing Illinois’ minimum wage to $10.65 across four years would give an additional $3.8 billion to directly affected families who will, in turn, spend those extra earnings.” This $3.8 billion does not include additional spending from those who make just above the minimum wage who would also likely see a wage increase to maintain wage ladders (the “spillover” effect).
In a struggling economy, and in a state with seemingly never-ending budget problems, who can argue with a measure that would boost the Illinois economy and not cost the state a dime? Especially after the state found a way to give tax breaks to giant corporations like CME Group and Sears.
The most common argument against a minimum wage increase is that it will result in job loss because employers will decrease hours or cut jobs. However, recent research demonstrates that minimum wage increases actually help create jobs. In his testimony to state legislatures, University of Illinois at Chicago research assistant professor Marc Doussard cites multiple sources that conclude that minimum wage increases do not lead to job losses, including a 2010 study in the prestigious Review of Economics and Statistics, and a 2006 study by the Fiscal Policy Institute. The latter provides findings that small businesses in states like Illinois with higher minimum wages than other states have not been hurt. In fact, the study shows that both the number of small businesses and the number of jobs at small businesses actually grew faster in states with higher minimum wages.
The proposed increase (via Senate Bill 1565) would gradually move the Illinois minimum wage from the current $8.25 per hour to $10.65 per hour in 2014. The brilliance of the proposal is to tie the minimum wage thereafter to inflation, avoiding the need to pass laws for wage increases every few years. Ten other states currently have similar policies indexing the minimum wage to inflation.
“It may never be equal, but it can be fair,” said Sr. Marlene Schemmel, Arise Chicago Advisory Board member, on the trip back to Chicago. This was her second trip to Springfield with the Raise Illinois coalition, and likely will not be her last. Like hundreds of faith leaders across the state, she recognizes the need to take action to benefit her state and its lowest paid workers.
If you want to join Rev. Renaud, Sr. Marlene and the hundreds of other clergy and community supporters, but can’t make it to Springfield, sign the voter or faith leader petitions on the Raise Illinois coalition website. And call your legislators. While one phone call may not determine how a legislator will vote, not calling guarantees your voice will not be heard.
-Shelly is the Director of Operations at Arise Chicago