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Closing the Gap: Rep. George Miller on why raising the minimum wage is now practical

February 5, 2014 at 6:32 PM EST
Some conservatives argue that raising the minimum wage will slow job growth without improving prospects for people in poverty. In a series of conversations about the growing divide between rich and poor, Judy Woodruff talks to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., co-author of a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, who says those arguments are obsolete.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Whether the focus is income inequality or economic mobility, both Democrats and Republicans have turned their attention more and more to the growing divide between the rich and poor in this country.

Tonight, we begin a series of conversations, called Closing the Gap, that will ask leading members of both parties how they propose to tackle the problem.

We kick things off with Democrat George Miller of Northern California, who is retiring from Congress after this year, having served 20 terms in the House of Representatives. He is co-author of a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Congressman Miller, welcome to the NewsHour.

And let me just begin by asking, how do you see economic opportunity in the country — in this country today?

REP. GEORGE MILLER, D-Calif.: Well, I think economic opportunity is still available to individuals.

And, certainly, you know, it’s been dampened because of the great recession caused by the financial scandals on Wall Street. But the country is starting to recover, and jobs are starting to be made available. They’re different jobs than maybe before the great recession. But they’re starting to appear.

The question will be whether or not our work force and individuals are in a position to take advantage of those jobs. But there’s also a whole host of jobs that have been available in this country for many, many years, but they don’t pay enough for individuals to support themselves or to support their family. And that’s a real problem in the economy, because they’re a drag on Main Street.

There’s just simply not enough income to families and individuals to make a vibrant economy go even better than it is right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much of the responsibility for addressing that is on the shoulders of government?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: Well, government has to deal with the issues of minimum wage, because I think it’s very important that you maintain a livable wage, which is a floor under wages, and then businesses and other entities can make decisions about those — about those wages.

But it’s really incumbent upon us, and it’s been true throughout the history of the country, to deal with the minimum wage. And right now, the minimum wage is lagging way behind the cost of living, way behind the growth in the economy. And it really is back to less than wages were in 1968, but the prices aren’t 1968.

And I would with say, if a business believes that they have to maintain a 1968 wage, if that’s their business plan, they have got bigger problems than the minimum wage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you — Congressman Miller, how do you address, though, the critics of this, who say raising the minimum wage, which — what you’re talking about, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10, a 40 percent increase almost, their argument is that it doesn’t really get to those people in poverty, that so many of the people working earning a minimum wage are younger workers, and they may be the second or third earners in a family, and, in other words, that you’re not really addressing the problem?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: Those criticisms are criticisms that almost — they’re very out of date. They’re criticisms that were launched 20 years ago.

Most of all of the new economic studies show us that in competing counties or cities where the minimum wage is higher in one state and lower in the other, where they adjoin one another, small businesses are hiring more people in the area that has the higher minimum wage.

There’s more economic activity on the Main Street of where there’s a higher minimum wage. The fact is that more than half of all of the minimum wage workers are over 20 years of age. Many of them are providing a major component of that family income, whether it’s a mother and a child or a husband and wife and a child. That minimum wage worker is very important to that family.

And we know that that minimum wage circulates through the economy very rapidly, because these are people who must spend that money to pay their bills, to make the car payment, to put gas in the car, to take care of health care. That money goes into the economy right away. And the estimate is that today about 85,000 jobs would be created if the federal government took this stand to raise the minimum wage. We would get to $10.10 over three years. So it’s not going to happen overnight, but over three years.

It’s a very important part of the — completing the economic package to grow the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just…

REP. GEORGE MILLER: That’s why governors — that’s why governors and mayors are doing this, because they know they can’t have a vibrant state, a vibrant city on the backs of low-income workers that can’t provide for themselves because of the low wage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one other question about that. One other argument one hears is that employers when they are required to pay more money to individual workers are just not going to higher as many people, and that this — and that especially when the economy is in a fragile state, as many people believe it is right now.

REP. GEORGE MILLER: The evidence really doesn’t hold up anymore.

That was true. When I first came to Congress, there was a lot of evidence suggesting that’s true. But you look at an employer like Costco. They see greater savings in a higher minimum wage because of the retention of their quality workers, and not getting that constant churn of workers that happens at the low-wage area, that they believe that that’s — and that’s why they support the increase in the minimum wage.

And so I think that this is — the evidence it clearly turning, and the support by the American public across all regions, across all political parties is overwhelming. They know, because of the experience of Americans’ families today when they have a member working at the minimum wage, people with high school — I mean, with college degrees.

So the empathy is much different than it was years ago. People are asking themselves who are making $15, $20, $30 an hour, saying, how the hell can anybody live on $7.25 an hour?  And that’s a compelling reason and that’s why the Congress is going to pass the minimum wage increase.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know, we know, having heard these arguments, the political reality continues to be tough for the minimum wage, because so many Republicans remain opposed to it.

But just setting that aside for a moment, what else do you think needs to be done to address income inequality in this country?  And where do you see the two parties being able to come together to do something about this?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: I think the two parties may come together around intensive job training, recognizing that the jobs that people will be seeking are different from the jobs that they rest.

Five million people showed up at community colleges seeking additional skills and training because they lost their jobs. We weren’t prepared for that. But I think there’s some interesting negotiations going on right now around federal job training, an extension of the current programs, a renewal of those programs.

I think, clearly, you have to look at the education system. We cannot continue to send people into the job market who are unprepared in the basic fundamental tenets of education, in terms of literacy and math and science. It just — we can no longer afford it as a nation, and we don’t have to afford it any longer as a nation, as you well know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quickly at the end, what happens when you sit down across the table from a Republican friend of yours with different views?  Are you able to have a conversation about this?

REP. GEORGE MILLER: It’s very interesting. I think this is starting to turn in the Congress. These discussions are going on around the Work Incentive Act and job training.

My Republican colleagues, some of them know eventually they’re going to need and want a vote on the minimum wage. And I think even in early childhood learning, we have a bipartisan bill. We have a number of Republicans on that. We have other Republicans who have told us they’re not quite yet ready to put — sign on the line, but they’re in favor of the legislation that Senator Harkin and I have introduced on behalf of the administration’s early learning opportunities.

So, some of this is starting to turn because they can’t justify their positions, and certainly the American public supports early learning as a keystone to a successful education and participation in the work force overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis. They support the minimum wage overwhelmingly on a bipartisan basis. And they support the idea that we would help people retrain for new jobs and — or to hold the job that they have that requires new skills.

They overwhelmingly support those. So, you can pick a fight in that arena if you want, but the public is not with you if you’re not for the government being proactive in these three key areas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman George Miller, we hear you, talking about closing the gap. Thank you.

REP. GEORGE MILLER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And next week, we will talk with Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who recently outlined his own anti-poverty agenda.