Minimum Wage as Income Inequality Battlefront

Growing public acknowledgement of widening income inequality is taking root in battles at the federal, state and local levels over a higher minimum wage.Raising federal, state and even city minimum wage requirements has emerged as the front line in the larger political battle over income inequality.

What seemed like a somewhat random reference in President Obama's second term inaugural speech has spread to become the battle cry for helping the working poor grasp at least the lowest rung of the middle class.

The debate over a higher minimum wage is at once a legislative issue and a ballot box decision. But most of all, the debate is a proxy for the much more complex question of reducing the disparity and growing divergence of income and wealth between the top 1 percent of Americans and everyone else.

It isn't the only debating forum for income inequality. The bare-knuckles showdown between Boeing and its Machinists Union in Washington over contract concessions served as a convenient object lesson for those seeking to prove that rich corporations are squeezing middle-income wage-earners.

And it isn't just labor unions and advocates for the poor who are voicing concern. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a potential GOP presidential hopeful in 2016, said inequality trend lines are "startling" and "deserve attention." Pew Research data suggests 65 percent of Americans, a majority across ages, incomes and political affiliations, believe economic inequality is growing and government should take action. There is even a majority in favor of taxing the wealthy to expand aid to the poor.

Some have conjoined income inequality with declining or stagnant economic opportunity —in the form of low-performing K-12 schools, rising college tuition and loss of good-paying jobs for people without a college degree or higher-level skill training.

However, diverging lines on charts, complicated plans to fix schools and solutions to the high cost of college are hard to reduce to a sound bite in political conversation. Raising the minimum wage is an issue that fits on a bumper sticker and can act as a stand-in for the deeper issues surrounding how much you earn per hour.

Most of the familiar arguments about the minimum wage have resurfaced. Opponents say a higher minimum wage will force employers, especially in small businesses, to cut the number of employees and look for labor substitutes. Think of a fast food restaurant automating its order-taking process. They point to young people just entering the labor market as the most hard-hit victims because it will be harder for them to get a job.

Supporters of a higher minimum wage claim it will help people who are working to escape the edges of poverty. They insist many employers can afford to trim profits to accommodate higher wages for hourly workers and, when they can't, the increases can easily be absorbed in the pricing of most products and services.

Whether or not a higher minimum wage is actually an economic driver, it is without question a convenient platform for a debate about simmering concern that the American dream is fading because the principle of equal opportunity is faltering. A newly released study using tax return data suggests Americans are still escaping poverty at the same rate as 10 years ago. But even that cheery news was leavened with the accompanying finding that people left in poverty are falling further behind. 

Smart politicians with longer-term ambitions will begin offering broader prescriptions to address income inequality, even as they grapple with the here-and-now issue of a higher minimum wage. Expect a lot of conversation — and some votes in states and cities — about these intertwined issues between now and the 2016 presidential election.